Twelve books that are shaping the conversation this season.
- By Margaret Slattery
Margaret Slattery is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, working primarily on FP's print magazine. A Los Angeles native and recent graduate of Yale University, where she majored in English, she has written for The New Republic and has studied in Leon, Spain.
The summer ahead promises new books from veteran foreign correspondents, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and a former secretary of state — plus, theoretically, some vacation time to be able to read them. From a dissection of the marketing strategies of U.S. brands like KFC and Pizza Hut in China to a revelatory report on secret clashes between the United States and Iran to a satirical novel about religious and class-based discrimination in Pakistan, here are 12 titles from the world of foreign policy to add to your summer reading list.
1. China Airborne, James Fallows (May 15)
Amid the ever-growing crowd of commentators tracking China’s rise, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows has homed in on a single industry – aviation — as a crucial test case for the country’s efforts to modernize and compete with the United States. With 2,600 modern aircraft, China’s commercial fleet is now second only to America’s (though still only about half as large). Fallows reports that two-thirds of airports under construction today are in China, and as part of its 12th Five-Year Plan, announced last year, the country pledged a quarter trillion dollars to its aerospace industry — not a guarantee of success, but a commitment worth watching nonetheless. As the New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos summarizes, “Instead of pretending to encapsulate this contradictory country and place, [Fallows] unpacks one industry with great skill … and uses it as a persuasive metaphor for measuring China’s progress toward its own aspirations.”
2. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer, Tom Doctoroff (May 22)
What does it take for a Western brand to win over China’s 1.3 billion consumers? It’s not a question of converting them, argues Tom Doctoroff, a longtime advertising executive and commentator who has spent more than a dozen years in mainland China; it’s about finding ways for Western products to become “vessels of Chinese culture” in their own right, acknowledging the family and nation as the “eternal pillars of identity” in the country. That means promoting consumer goods more for the status and ambition they signal than their monetary worth, and ensuring that they offer external as well as internal payoffs — marketing Skippy for its “delicious peanut taste” as well as its “intelligent sandwich preparation,” for instance. “Even beer must do something,” Doctoroff writes. “In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.”
3. Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America, Charles H. Ferguson (May 22)
In the two years since Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job portrayed the “systemic corruption” in the financial services industry that led to the 2008 crisis, anti-corporate sentiment has grown, most notably during the Occupy Wall Street protests that flooded city squares last fall. Now, Ferguson has written a book expanding on the film’s themes. He traces the financial collapse back to early deregulation efforts in the 1980s, while also pointing the finger at the Clinton-era “dismantling” of regulatory policies like the Glass-Steagall Act, as well as George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. “Over the last thirty years, the United States has been taken over by an amoral financial oligarchy,” Ferguson writes, echoing Occupy rhetoric. “The American dream of opportunity, education, and upward mobility is now largely confined to the top few percent of the population.”
4. It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell with Tony Kolts (May 22)
Colin Powell is the latest of George W. Bush’s administration to publish a memoir, following Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice last year and Bush himself the year before that. Powell’s book recounts the lessons he’s learned throughout his life, beginning with his childhood in the Bronx through until his time as a four-star general and ultimately as secretary of state. His discussion of his role in the war in Iraq is likely to garner the most attention. Powell, who famously argued before the U.N. Security Council that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, says in the book that he was unaware at the time that the evidence he presented had been prepared by the vice president’s office, rather than the National Security Council. On the war itself, Powell says he thinks U.S. troops “did quite well,” but notes, “there was an assumption … that this was all going to snap back in place,” and “it became obvious early on that was not going to be the case.”
5. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti Mohammed Hanif (May 29)
Acclaimed for his first novel, 2008’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Pakistani writer Mohammaed Hanif has returned with a second book of satirical fiction. At the center of the novel’s lively mix of characters is the protagonist, Alice, a young Christian recently released from a women’s jail and now working as a nurse in a Catholic hospital. While humorous — Alice’s husband is a Muslim bodybuilder named Teddy Butt — the book also explores the deep-rooted discrimination against Pakistan’s poorest, among which Alice and her father, a janitor, count themselves. As Hanif explained in a recent interview, the prejudices Alice encounters are “not just because she is Christian; these prejudices are basically because she’s a woman, and ever more important, these prejudices exist because she is poor.”
6. Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, Lindsey Hilsum (May 31)
When the Arab Spring spread to Libya early last year, Channel 4 correspondent Lindsey Hilsum immersed herself in reporting on the country’s transition, witnessing the revolution’s onset in Benghazi in February, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall in Tripoli in August, and the display of Qaddafi’s corpse in Misrata in October. Hilsum supplements her on-the-ground reporting, including time she spent embedded with rebels, with an account of the historical and political forces that led protesters to rise up, including the oppression of Qaddafi’s bizarre authoritarian regime. Until the revolution, he was “sitting on top of it like a great big fat toad” for four decades, the British journalist said in a recent interview. “And nothing could move underneath him.”
7. The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, William J. Dobson (June 5)
Despite the crop of dictators toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya last year, the “cat-and-mouse” game between authoritarian regimes and their oppressed populations continues apace, argues Slate politics and foreign affairs editor (and former Foreign Policy managing editor) William J. Dobson in his new book. The Arab world may have successfully harnessed the power of the Internet to organize mass protests, but the world’s strongmen — from Syria and Yemen to China, Russia, and Venezuela — are likewise adapting, whether by working to maintain the appearance of a democratic state with free elections or chalking up economic success to centralized power.
8. Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, David E. Sanger (June 5)
One week before Barack Obama took office, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, published The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, detailing the damage George W. Bush left for his successor. Three and a half years later, how has Obama’s foreign policy fared? With reporting seemingly from inside the Situation Room, Sanger recounts how the Obama administration’s frustration over the war in Afghanistan helped to shape the “light footprint” strategy the president has deployed in the war on terror, as well as in Iran, Libya, and Syria. The first in a series of excerpts from the book ran in the Times on May 20.
9. The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, Joseph Stiglitz (June 11)
An early critic of the concentration of wealth by the “1 percent,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was a vocal supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, even showing up to speak to crowds in Zuccotti Park last October. Coming on the heels of Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, Stiglitz’s new book argues that after the 2008 financial collapse, “One of the darkest sides to the market economy that came to light was the large and growing inequality that left the American social fabric, and the country’s economic sustainability, fraying at the edges.” The collapse widened the rift, he argues, rendering the United States the most unequal advanced economy in the world, where 1 percent of the country’s population possesses 40 percent of the wealth. Although time is running out, Stiglitz says it is still possible for America to reverse course.
10. Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran (June 26)
To assess the Obama administrations 2009 surge in Afghanistan, longtime Washington Post reporter and editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran looks back six decades: In the 1950s, a team of American engineers constructed a model American town in southern Afghanistan — complete with tree-lined streets, a co-ed high school, and a community swimming pool — hoping to turn the surrounding region to turn into rich farm fields. Instead, the land, known as “Little America,” was eventually ceded to warlords and used to grow poppies that helped fuel Afghanistan’s opium trade. In Little America, Chandrasekaran details how U.S. efforts to rebuild the region during the Obama surge failed too, on account of infighting and incompetence among U.S. politicians, military leaders, and diplomats.
11. The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, David Crist (July 19)
While a potential U.S. war with Iran has appeared to be little more than presidential campaign fodder so far, David Crist, senior historian for the U.S. government, argues in this book that the two countries have been engaged in various secret acts of war over the past three decades. The book — which represents the culmination of more than 10 years of research and promises to “break new ground on virtually every page” — reports on clashes between the two country’s intelligence agencies; battles between Iranian speedboats and Western oil tankers; and the thousands of disguised Iranian soldiers who worked to undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Clashes such as these have confounded the past six presidents, Crist says, all the while threatening a wider conflict.
12. From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, Pankaj Mishra (Aug. 2, Britain)
Although British colonialism suppressed Asian intellectual thought in the Victorian era, in the succeeding decades thinkers from throughout the continent worked together to forge an Asian renaissance. So argues Indian-born British writer (and FP contributor) Pankaj Mishra in this forthcoming book, which tracks how figures like India’s Rabindranath Tagore and China’s Liang Qichao worked to prop up their countries’ intellectual traditions, ultimately influencing the contemporary thought of groups like the Chinese Communist Party, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood. As Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk put it, Mishra’s book “reverses the long gaze of the West upon the East, showing modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world’s population from Turkey to China.”