All posts by John C. Hulsman

In a trade War, Europe Can Deal a Historic Blow to the US

By Dr John Hulsman and Dr Boris N.Liedtke

“This is so dumb. Europe, Canada, and Mexico are not China, and you don’t treat allies the same way as opponents.”

–Senator Ben Sasse, Republican from Nebraska, regarding President Trump’s Trade strategy

 The vast majority of economic theorists would agree that in a trade war the economies as a whole in all the countries involved lose out. Their conclusion is, despite sunny and fantastical claims by the Trump White House to the contrary, that a trade war is not winnable. But this should only be where discussion on the administration’s bellicose trade policy towards its allies—the EU, Canada, and Mexico—begins, not ends.

For the key is to think broader than the trade relationship between two countries. The Trump administration, in its gormless overconfidence, has just handed a potential historic victory to its allies in Europe and Canada – as long as these countries are willing to accept the new reality of a Trump presidency, the multipolar world we now live in, and boldly go where they did not dare go before.

Donald Trump’s negotiation style has been highly predictable and consistent throughout his business career as well as since assuming the presidency. It can be summarised by two main pillars which are common knowledge among professional negotiators: first adopt an early anchor strategy, and second know and exploit the counterparty’s BRA (Best Realistic Alternative). The former simply means to be the first in a negotiation to claim a position highly favourable to yourself, thereby forcing the other party to start negotiating away from their core position.

The second negotiating gambit is to analyse what the counterparty’s best realistic alternative is if a deal is not struck. Once this is known, you are then willing to marginally move from the anchor towards inside a settlement area that is better for the counterparty than no deal at all. The only way to counter this strategy is by walking temporarily away from the offered deal, find a better realistic alternative or improve on one’s position. When that is done, the trick is to re-engage with the other party by throwing out your own anchor.

Moving from theory to reality, Trump has just thrown out his anchor in trade negotiations with Canada, Europe and Mexico by unilaterally imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium. The knee jerk reaction of these countries is to counter this with their own punitive tariffs and then seek negotiations hoping to settle somewhere within their best realistic alternative, but probably relatively close to what the Trump administration will be hoping for. Consumers in both countries will face higher prices; jobs on both sides of the Atlantic will be lost and economic theorists will be proven right – no one wins a trade war.

But this unimaginative policy would also mean missing a historic opportunity which the US has just blindly, foolishly, handed to Europe. If the European countries and the EU have the imagination and the will to see President Trump’s unforced error, they can seize on his glaring mistake as a game changer in global politics itself, or at least at a minimum as a substantially improved Best Realistic Alternative in future talks with the US.

In 1823, then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams formulated the Monroe Doctrine, which has been the bedrock of US foreign policy ever since. In essence, it claims that “as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for colonization by any European powers.” America boldly declared that the Western Hemisphere was exclusively an American sphere of influence, and that European (and any other) powers were to be kept out.

Mexico and Canada, as America’s immediate neighbours, have benefitted from the Doctrine through improved national security and trade but have also seen their foreign policy options severely restricted. But the foundation for the continued relevance of the Doctrine have been rapidly corroding during the Tump presidency. The president has called into question both the military commitment it offers its allies and has now moved to challenge the economic benefits of free trade with its closest neighbours, who are amongst its most important trading partners. Institutionally, NATO has been questioned and NAFTA is outright being blown apart. Europe needs to react to these calamities and step out of the shadows of a regional power to assume its role as a global player.

And the time is ripe for the EU to pounce. Undoubtedly, Canada in many ways finds itself a ‘European’ country marooned on the North America continent, in terms of its cultural, political and economic mores. Among foreign policy circles it is frequently joked that Canada would feel more at home if it would be situated between Belgium and the Netherlands, yet geography has errantly placed it north of the United States.

While Canada can’t do much about its geography, President Trump has nevertheless opened the door for a bold strike to shift Canada back to the sphere of influence of Europe – reversing the Monroe doctrine. Instead of playing tit-for-tat on trade with a negotiator like Donald Trump, the European Union could change the game entirely, offering Canada the opportunity to apply for a fast track admission to the European trade block, joining as a full member at the earliest possible opportunity. Lost trade relationships between Canada and the USA would be quickly replaced with access to an even larger consumer market in Europe, and on far more common cultural trading terms. Geo-strategically, Europe, instead of losing global influence through Brexit, would gain a foothold on another continent.

Scepticism about Europe being capable of expanding to the Americas should be put to rest by looking at recent history. During the 1990s and 2000s, the European Union moved eastwards to include former Communist countries, which were and in some cases remain further removed Brussels than are the rule-of-law-loving Canadians.

The audacious invitation to Canada to apply for membership in the European Union—triggered by America’s feckless declaration of a trade war on its own allies–would inevitably trigger an anguished, overdue, and fundamental foreign policy discussion in Washington about what it would mean to have the European Union on its northern border. As NAFTA inevitably breaks up—due to a combination of the Trump administration’s unrealistic demands on Mexico, and its likely July election of leftist firebrand Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador as president–it is conceivable that America’s southern neighbour might even seek to join this alliance over time. Geo-strategically, the world would be truly turned upside down, heralding the birth of the new multipolar era.

Even at a minimum, such an initiative would have substantially shifted the Best Realistic Alternative trade strategy in any future negotiations with the US. Instead of seeing themselves as vassal states depending on the US for its defence, foreign, and trade policy – Canada, Mexico and Europe–would sit down with the US as negotiating equals, letting Donald Trump know that the alternative to sensible trade positions between the allies of the Cold War is an absolutely ruinous policy of geopolitical isolation, with the US finding itself surrounded by the European Union on its own continent.

Donald Trump is succeeding in singlehandedly taking an axe to the old international order. However, with geopolitical creativity and will, a new and better one can still emerge from the ashes.

–Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

–Dr. Boris N. Liedtke is the Distinguished Executive Fellow at INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute and has over twenty years’ experience in the financial sector. He was the CEO of the largest bank by assets in Luxemburg and board member for Operations at the largest German fund manager. He is author of numerous articles on finance and trade as well as having received his PhD from the London School of Economics for the publication of “Embracing a Dictatorship” by MacMillan.

Published in the European Financial Review, June 6, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

Legend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns of Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

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This telling historical vignette was eerily re-enacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness.

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished his nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Published by Princeton University Press, May 30, 2018.

–Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.

 

 

 

Squandering Bismarck’s Law: US Energy Policy Under Donald Trump

“God protects Fools, Children, and the United States of America.”

                                             –Otto von Bismarck (likely apocryphal)

 Introduction: The Meaning Behind Bismarck’s Law

 The edgy (and very funny) quotation at the head of this article is believed by much of the world. Foreigners have long had an in-joke—probably incorrectly attributed to Otto von Bismarck—about America’s obliviousness to its own fantastic luck. There is a modern technological corollary to Bismarck’s Law of America’s great good fortune. Despite the fact that European elites are broadly as well educated as their American counterparts (I myself went to St. Andrews University in Scotland), why is it that the US monopolises the game-changing innovators of the modern world, creating the people that in turn bring into being whole new cutting-edge industries out of nothing?

America has Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to its credit. This is an innovative first team unmatched in modern history. To many outsiders, this is just another sign that America (perhaps unfairly) is smiled upon by the gods.

Frankly, in Bismarck’s supposed quote, there is more than a little envy at work. Yes, America has been blessed by great good fortune, but as my new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, makes clear, far-sighted visionaries have made the most of it. For there are numerous practical reasons for the US’s ‘luck’ in terms of innovation. One of them revolves around a story I have recounted at a number of conferences, that while the American government did little to sponsor the Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, at least they beneficially left them alone.

Think of the practical work of creation, of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tinkering away in Jobs’ garage, perfecting the personal computer. They simply couldn’t have done so in Europe. With its mania for over-regulation, working in a garage would have been forbidden, being considered an ‘unsafe work space.’ Yes, the more we look at America’s luck, the more the story regarding fabled Red Sox slugger Ted Williams comes to mind. Late in his career, Williams had a lucky bounce of the baseball and found himself with an undeserved hit. A rookie said to him, ‘Gee, Mr. Williams, that sure was lucky.’ The dour Hall of Famer replied, ‘The more I practice, kid, the luckier I get.’

Americans’ advantage is that they have been allowed to practice, to tinker at things, to dream and to realise those dreams, with the government (at its best) merely shrouding them in benign neglect. The country’s genius has not been primarily located in the public sphere—I can name many more bad presidents than good ones–but rather in the practical wisdom that if government leaves its people alone, their private, commercial genius will drive everything.

We who practice foreign policy analysis have an in-built bias towards public and governmental—rather than private and commercial—actions. It is what we have grown up studying and assessing, and where we are at our most comfortable. But such a statist interpretation of the world does not begin to fully explain a country such as America, with its genius for non-governmental, commercial solutions.

The shale revolution that occurred during the time of the Obama administration–with it again practicing the blessed innovative principal of benign neglect–is a case in point. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing—using water and other liquids at high pressures to far more efficiently and cheaply force residual oil and gas to the surface through existing fissures—has utterly transformed the global energy industry.

Suddenly wells and whole fields of gas and oil that had proven uneconomical just years before were made viable across the American West, from Texas to North Dakota. This was a private, commercial engineering initiative that evolved over decades, and all without much (thank God) governmental involvement. Nevertheless, this revolution and its fruits have landed squarely, luckily, in Donald Trump’s lap. So looking at whatever President Trump’s energy strategy might be is entirely beside the point; it is the private, commercial shale revolution that matters for America and the rest of the world.

The Shale Revolution as game changer

 It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of the shale boom. The numbers tell the tale and they amount to a revolution that has almost incalculable geopolitical and macroeconomic consequences for a world that has largely missed its monumental significance. With the advent of fracking, US oil production has increased 80% over the last decade. The US Department of Energy estimates that in 2018 American production levels will reach 10.3 million barrels per day (bpd), besting the all-time record set in faraway 1970. Of this fully 2 million bpd will be exported. The gas industry is being revolutionised too. By 2015, more than half of all gas produced in the US came from shale.

Nor is the shale boom a flash in the pan. The US Energy Department estimates that America has enough shale gas reserves (coupled with oil and other gas resources) to last for two centuries. Quite amazingly, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that US oil production is set to top that of energy superpowers Saudi Arabia and Russia in 2018, with more than 80% of global energy supply growth likely to come from the US in the next decade. Staggeringly, by the 2020’s, the IEA expects North America to be self-sufficient in energy.

The Permian Basin in west Texas, accessed through the fracking engineering revolution, is estimated to have as much oil beneath it as Ghawar, the largest field in Saudi Arabia. Further, the oil is far cheaper to extract than are the riches in most countries within OPEC countries. Almost overnight, the United States has risen phoenix-like from energy mendicant to transform itself into one of the global big three (along with Russia and Riyadh), a determiner of the global price of energy.

It would seem Bismarck’s Law holds regarding America’s endless luck. Just a few years ago, everyone thought the US would be perpetually consigned to be an energy importer for the foreseeable future, with all the geo-economic and geopolitical risk that entails. Suddenly, seemingly magically, in a blink of an historical eye, America finds itself one of the major energy producers of the world.

The Saudi’s Rockefeller Gambit fails to kill the Shale Revolution at its birth

 There are two great geo-economic takeaways from the advent of the Shale Revolution. First, the Saudis—until now the world’s primary energy superpower—have definitively failed to kill the Shale Revolution at its birth. Nothing can stop it now. Second, in trying to do so, Saudi Arabia unwittingly made shale the new ceiling for global energy prices for the foreseeable future.

Initially the Saudis attempted to kill shale, playing a version of a very old business game. Their John D. Rockefeller energy strategy—named for the late nineteenth/early twentieth century oil monopolist who would force overall oil production up (taking a temporary loss) and prices temporarily down in service of the greater goal of driving his competitors out of business and thereby boosting his overall market share over time—failed to work. While the price of oil plummeted a dizzying 70% from its June 2014 highs of $120 a barrel to a trough of just over $30 a barrel, shale did not throw in the towel.

 Constant shale productivity gains meant that US output fell only moderately, from a still impressive total at the time of over 9 million bpd. Also, turning shale wells on and off is far less expensive than regarding the fixed-rig wells in Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC, making shale for more price sensitive, as wells can be turned on and off like a faucet. In response, the Saudis were forced to suspend their game of energy chicken, instead giving into the inevitable, reversing course, with OPEC (and the help of an equally hard-pressed Russia) now cutting production frantically to limit the financial damage to its members. The September 2016 OPEC deal to cut oil output amounts to nothing less than Saudi Arabia’s surrender to the power of American shale.

The self-inflicted wounds of Riyadh’s Rockefeller strategy have driven the Saudis to economic extremes unthought-of in recent years. In 2015, the Saudi budget deficit amounted to $98 billion, or a whopping 15% of its GDP. While Riyadh has mountainous reserves, it needs the price of oil—the sole motor of its economy—to fetch around $85 a barrel to adequately finance public spending. Despite significant price increases of 35% over the last six months of 2017, this figure is still barely on the horizon today.

While the temporary anti-shale Russian-Saudi alliance, first put in place in September 2016, has proved remarkably durable–with both powers agreeing to keep cuts in place of 1.8m bpd until the end of 2018–it is now clear that nothing will be able to put the shale genie back into the bottle. A year on from the deal, shale production had actually increased by a very healthy 10.8%, year on year. While the Russia-OPEC deal has put a floor on the global energy price of around $50 a barrel, the shale revolution has surely put a ceiling on the global energy price, meaning energy prices will travel in a far narrower band than in the past.

The Saudi Sisyphus and the end of an era

Rather, the young, feckless Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has blundered, as employing Saudi Arabia’s John D. Rockefeller strategy to permanently drive US shale out of the energy market has led to the exact opposite result. Unwittingly, the Saudis have made the Americans the new global energy swing producer, the permanent ceiling for the global price of oil. For just as prices inevitably rise due to Saudi and Russian cuts, more shale wells come online, stabilising the global energy price. Like the mythological Greek figure of torture, Sisyphus, MBS will roll the boulder of energy price increases up a hill, only to have it perennially tumble down as shale production increases in turn, over and over again.

 This, in its way, is as momentous a shift in global power as the stunning Brexit and Donald Trump political ructions. Whereas Brexit showed Europe to be in absolute decline, and the election of President Trump brings to an abrupt end 70 years of the US as the global ordering power, the Saudi’s meek surrender brings to a close the long age of the OPEC domination of the world’s energy market. The year 2016 truly saw the death of one world order, and the uncertain birth of another.

The boundless geopolitical riches from the shale revolution

 Coupled with the tar sands energy boom in Canada and the liberalisation of Pemex, Mexico’s heretofore state-controlled oil company, North America now stands as close to energy self-sufficiency as it is possible to be in the modern, interdependent world. If properly grasped, this is a geopolitical treasure almost beyond measure. Imagine the decrease in political risk if, instead of having to primarily focus the chaos of the Middle East in terms of securing its energy supplies, the US has to concentrate only on Mexico and Canada.

 The second great geostrategic benefit flows from the first. For the first time in modern history, the US will not have to worry overmuch about the Middle East (and with such tragic results). American imports from OPEC decreased a significant 20% from late 2016 to late 2017, due to the Shale Revolution. At last, a policy of off-shore balancing vis-a-vis that snake pit of a region, the graveyard of presidencies, is possible.

 Third, the shale boom will dramatically turn the US into a net exporter of energy, able to use its exports as a tool of geopolitics. This strategy involves supplying hard-pressed Eastern Europe with more of its energy needs over time (as of April 2018, Moscow accounts for fully one-third of Europe’s gas needs), so they are no longer at the tender mercies of the Russians. This will surely decrease the Kremlin’s sway over Europe as a whole.

It also means it will be possible to entice energy-starved China into buying American shale exports. Over time, this newfound dependence would make it far less likely Beijing emerges as a revolutionary power, as it is unlikely to want to come to blows with a newfound vital energy supplier. It also makes the possibility of a full-blown Sino-Russian alliance, the only power configuration in the near term that can challenge US global dominance, far less likely.

 Conclusion: President Trump and the confounding of Bismarck’s Law

But no amount of luck—even paired with the genius of leaving one’s people alone to be creative–can survive disastrous statesmanship. And the defiantly wrongheaded foreign policy of Donald Trump puts at great risk almost every geostrategic treasure offered up to the US by the shale revolution.

First, in threatening the future of the wildly successful NAFTA accord, the Trump White House endangers not just the significant continental gains made so far, but also imperils the glittering prospects of North American consolidation of near-energy independence in the medium term. For it is highly unlikely either Mexico City or Ottawa will want to formalise consolidating energy ties with a US that has just shown itself to be such a fickle and unreliable economic partner.

Second, the same goes for the White House’s threatened trade war with China. While there is no doubt that Beijing has not played fair in many ways in terms of its trading regime—from habitual intellectual property theft to endowing lavish subsidies on state-owned enterprises. However, by unilaterally threatening up to $150 billion in tariffs (and actually imposing a 25% tariff on Chinese steel and a 15% tariff on aluminium) the Trump administration is not taking the longer-term picture into account.

To put it mildly, Beijing, so ripe to be won over due to its pressing energy needs and the advent of US shale, will not turn to the US for its long-term energy supplies in the midst of a trade war. The geostrategic losses could be incalculable.

Third, by ignoring the Obama administration’s efforts to extricate the US from the cesspool of the Middle East and instead reverting to form in mindlessly supporting Saudi Arabia, President Trump has increased the American footprint in a region when it is both unnecessary (offering the US with little strategic gain) and highly perilous. The US fiddles in the Middle East, while the primary geostrategic arena has decisively shifted to Asia, where most of the world’s future growth will come from, along with much of its political risk. The shale revolution provided the US with an elegant reason to truly pivot away from the Middle East. Yet sadly, and for no gain, this opportunity is being tragically ignored.

There is absolutely no doubt that Bismarck’s law holds: Through a combination of great good luck and the skill of believing in the genius of its people, the United States has been given the Holy Grail that is the Shale Revolution. The tragedy is that all this good fortune is being squandered by a president who remains resolutely determined not to let facts get in the way of his theories.

A version of this was published in the June edition of Aspenia.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk consulting firm. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was just published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 and is now available on Amazon.