Stephen M. Walt

Tuesday morning book club

One of the pleasant frustrations of modern life is that there are far more good books out there than any of us have time to read. Browsing the Brookline Booksmith — the wonderful local bookstore in my hometown — is simultaneously delightful and depressing: I get intrigued and excited by all sorts of titles, but ...

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One of the pleasant frustrations of modern life is that there are far more good books out there than any of us have time to read. Browsing the Brookline Booksmith — the wonderful local bookstore in my hometown — is simultaneously delightful and depressing: I get intrigued and excited by all sorts of titles, but then I have trouble deciding which to buy and which to read first.

I’m know I’m not the only person with that problem — which is why book reviews exist — so I thought I’d help out by suggesting a few books I’ve recently read that got my own synapses humming.

The first is John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al Qaeda, which relentlessly punctures the various ways that analysts of all persuasions have overstated the dangers and the importance of nuclear weapons. (For a preview of Mueller’s argument, see the FP excerpt here). It is an equal-opportunity critique, as Mueller goes after hawks, doves, realists, and other Cassandras with equal relish and a playful but pungent wit. He emphasizes that nuclear weapons are in fact highly destructive and need to be handled with great care, but convincingly shows that policymakers and pundits have 1) routinely exaggerated their destructive power (i.e., by suggesting they can “destroy the world”), 2) inflated their importance in deterring war, imparting influence, or enhancing status, and 3) overstated the risk of nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, or other very low-probability events. And instead of encouraging a useful prudence, Mueller argues that our “atomic obsession” has led us to adopt various policies that wasted a lot of money and may have actually made the situation more dangerous rather than less. Not everyone will be convinced by Mueller’s arguments, but the book will certainly make you think. Added bonus: It’s immensely fun to read.

My second recommendation is Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall’s America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity. This is a creative, carefully researched, and incisive analysis of U.S. strategy during the long struggle against the Soviet Union. There are plenty of good books on this topic already, but Craig and Logevall’s is one of the best, and their interpretation has important implications for contemporary strategic debates. In brief, they argue that America’s initial response to the Soviet threat in Europe was both necessary and successful, but overselling by early Cold Warriors also put in place a worldview and a set of domestic institutions that consistently exaggerated U.S. insecurity and led to costly and counterproductive excesses over the next 40 years. The Soviet Union is now gone, but that worldview and those institutions remain in place today. Which is why the United States spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined, why we find ourselves bogged down in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, and why we panic over countries like Iran (whose defense spending in 2007 was a whopping $7.5 billion, or about 1 percent of America’s).

My third suggestion is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, which I read on my recent trip to Norway. Based on a series of invited lectures, it is a set of pointed reflections on history, historians, and the ways in which the past is employed (and distorted) for both noble and ignoble purposes. If not quite the intellectual tour de force of a book like David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, her reflections nonetheless provide a smart and eminently sensible set of warnings for citizens and leaders alike. History is essential to our identities, but it can also a dangerous weapon in the hands of anyone with a political agenda.

And speaking of history, my last recommendation is Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs, which I acquired last week. I haven’t finished it, but so far it’s an entertaining, gracefully written, and eye-opening look at a diverse people whose history, culture and character are often badly misunderstood (if not actively distorted) here in the United States. Read it. You’ll learn a lot.

RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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