Reading Daniel Levin’s book on international politics, I expected to hate him. From correcting a congressman’s geopolitical knowledge — “Actually, I think they mostly speak Portuguese” — to anecdotes about ill-informed officials wasting his time, Levin comes across almost as an Aaron Sorkin character; ever the smartest person in the room.
His thesis, in Nothing but a Circus, boils down to the fact that most people are in it for themselves; I’m left to assume he is no different to those he disparages. In person, however, he is quiet and self-effacing, his softly-spoken accent betraying a childhood spent in Africa.
Born in Israel, Levin was brought up in Nairobi, where his father was a diplomat in the 1960s, before being sent to school in Switzerland. “I’m one of those Theresa May would call a citizen of nowhere,” he jokes when we meet, adding that his identity is “a little bit of everything” but Jewish above all. “The upside of rootlessness is being able to adapt to different places and cultures and finding joy in that,” he says.
After university and a stint clerking at the Israeli Supreme Court, since 1992 he has been based in New York, working as a lawyer, a political adviser and a development expert.
It’s a career that sees him jet off to Russia, China, the Gambia and beyond at a moment’s notice — “I’m always tired,” he says of the jetlag — and has left him with juicy stories about the characters shaping global politics.
As recounted in his book, these range from the humorous — the pompous Chinese chairman who boasts about wine but does not realise he is serving “pure, unadulterated vinegar,” or the political hangers-on who spout nonsense — to the sinister. In one chapter he details a long con involving a Russian opposition campaigner who turns out to have been a Kremlin plant, an experience that shook him to his core. “The discipline to create a token opposition leader and then cash those chips eight years on, it’s incredible. But anyone who watches Russian politics will not be surprised.”
He decided to write it down after being struck by the recurring characteristics exhibited at the top level, from greed to manipulation to a lack of self-awareness, or simply poor etiquette. “I started to find patterns in how people were behaving,” says Levin. “Writing it was a form of therapy.”
He is fascinated by the self-righteousness displayed by those in power. “That I think you see in politics more than elsewhere,” he says. “People behave in what can only be described as an utterly self-serving manner, and yet justify it in a really aggressive way.”
Some of the anecdotes are unbelievable, but Levin — a diarist since childhood — insists all are true, although names and even genders have been altered. “There are some people you could reverse-engineer their identity. I didn’t want to embarrass people. I wanted it to be about the experiences and the fact that you could repeat them with other individuals and in other contexts.”
Certainly, Levin does not paint a flattering portrait of power; in one scene he writes about “the DC scalp look”, where everyone is searching “for the most promising opportunity to ingratiate oneself with someone of even greater importance”. And yet surely everyone knows that power corrupts, or that ego often gets in the way of good conduct? Was Levin naive to assume otherwise?
“If you don’t believe it’s at least possible that people will behave well then you have to get out of that business,” he counters. “Whether you’re in Washington or London, if you don’t find a way to believe there are some people in those environments who can behave well then you will be very bitter early on. It’s a balance — be realistic and cautious but still have some degree of idealism.”
Donald Trump “is just the more extreme or grotesque manifestation” of this, suggests Levin, “even down to the vanity or the complete blocking out of critical views”. Levin says the latter was prevalent in the Bush administration during the Iraq War, but worries about the longer term implications of Trump’s presidency. “At this moment of this odd leadership in the White House you still have tremendous power in the military,” he points out. “Where does power migrate? How does the Pentagon operate? There are several aspects of the US government that can operate beyond checks and balances. To me the most dangerous part of the Trump presidency is it entrenches those instincts. Once power has migrated it’s extremely hard to get it back.”
Trump’s victory, he adds, was a disrupting vote from people sick of mainstream politics — “people follow shiny objects — he’s the shiny object” — but Levin is not optimistic for his supporters. “Most revolutions end up devouring their own children,” he observes. More broadly, he sees it as key in the rise of the right and of populism that “we now have voting generations that no longer look at the second world war as their defining identity”.
“You see it in France and in so many countries a dilution of the visceral memory of the twentieth century and the history that led us there,” he says. “I suppose the only thing to learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”
Nor does he anticipate that Trump will work wonders in the Middle East. “Israelis misread US politics, they forget the lessons of Suez,” says Levin. “They sometimes behave as if since time immortal the US supported Israel.”
Having worked in conflict resolution, Levin is critical of the peace process as it stands, suggesting there may be more mileage in starting with a one state solution. “Forcing the Palestinian side to commit to a state alongside Israel and forcing the Israelis to decide whether they want a Jewish or a democratic state.”
But, referencing the resistance to the 2005 Gaza disengagement, he doubts it’s a meaningful evacuation from the West Bank is possible without causing civil war. “We’re no longer talking about a few outliers.” And, he says sadly, Israelis can live with the status quo. “The fact is a terrorist attack is tragic but it doesn’t threaten the survival of Israel. Again, it’s generations who’ve grown up post-1967.”
His time near the top has left him clear friendship plays no part in politics; he writes incredulously of backstabbing amongst this global elite. Having spent decades in these circles, how has he survived?
“The trick is to have relationships that are critical and are not just echo chambers,” he says. For Levin, he has been kept grounded by his wife and family. “And there were enough humbling experiences too.”
These days, Levin sits on the board of the Liechtenstein Foundation, working with future leaders in developing countries, and on diplomatic efforts in countries torn apart by terror or tribal violence.
Despite his fatigue with the circus of international politics, he still believes most people are motivated by the right things. “It’s easy to malign politicians,” he says. “But even in the most grotesque environments you find people trying to do good.”
Nothing but A Circus: Misadventures among the Powerful is published by Allen Lane