Daniel W. Drezner

Announcing the IR 101 contest!!

Announcing the IR 101 contest!!

There’s one other nugget from Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker essay that I didn’t get around to yesterday.  In chronicling Barack Obama’s foreign policy education, he damns him with faint praise:

[T]here was no mistaking the lightness of [Obama’s foreign affairs] résumé. Just a year before coming to Washington, State Senator Obama was not immersed in the dangers of nuclear Pakistan or an ascendant China; as a provincial legislator, he was investigating the dangers of a toy known as the Yo-Yo Water Ball. (He tried, unsuccessfully, to have it banned.)

Obama had always read widely, and now he was determined to get a deeper education. He read popular books on foreign affairs by Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman.


That last sentence provoked a lot of titters on Twitter among the foreign policy community.  It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Tom Friedman’s recent books have the same status among foreign policy wonks that John Grisham novels have in literary circles. 

This raises an interesting question, however — if a newly-minted U.S. Senator did want to seriously bone up on foreign affairs, what books should he or she read? 

This is a harder question to answer that you might think.  Here is a rank ordering of what a typical Senator cares about:

1)  Getting re-elected;

2) Getting re-elected;

3)  Establishing a domestic policy niche in order to claim credit… in order to get re-elected;

4)  Starving the media of any opportunity to write a profile of their private lives… in order to get re-elected. 

5)  Foreign affairs

 There’s a reason foreign  affairs is at the bottom — in the post-Cold War world, the American public doesn’t care and doesn’t know much about international relations.  Short of the presidential level, developing expertise or interest in that area does nothing for a politician’s electoral chances — and even at the presidential leve it’s a mixed bag. 

With this kind of mindset, giving a Senator a copy of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and assuming they’ll get really hooked on the story is faintly absurd.  Many of my academic brethren might proffer up one of the more recent classics in international relations theory.  To which I say, "BWA HA HA HA HA!!!!"  Neither Kenneth Waltz nor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita would last as long in a politicians’ hands as Thucydides. 

No, if you’re educating a politician from scratch, you need something relatively pithy, accessible, relevant to current events, and America-centric.  Given those criteria, Friedman’s oeuvre makes some kind of inuitive sense, no matter how wrong or ripe for satire it is.  I mean, what’s the alternative — Three Cups of Tea

Aspiring leaders of America can and should do better than Friedman, however.  I therefore call upon the readers of this blog to proffer up their suggestions — if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be? 

I have my own thoughts on the matter, but I’ll hold off until Friday to post my selections.  My choices are hardy written in stone, so I’ll be reading this comment thread with great interest.