This year's great books about the world, selected by our editors, columnists, and bloggers.
- By Lena S. Bae
Susan B. Glasser, editor in chief
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert A. Caro (2012)
Anyone who wants to understand politics — anywhere — should read Robert Caro’s latest and, in my view, best LBJ book, The Passage of Power. It might seem to have little to do with global matters — even Vietnam rates scarcely more than a few mentions, serving mostly as dark foreshadowing of the next Caro tome to come — but the book is a gripping study of a master politician at work that nonetheless seems uncannily relevant to this current age of crash transitions and democratic uncertainty, all these decades later. Besides, it’s just a great read. Actually, The Passage of Power is two very different books in one — the first half recounting in painful detail Johnson at his nadir, an increasingly isolated even mocked figure as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, loathed by the president’s dazzling liberal friends and plagued by scandals; while the second half is a vivid, at times hour by hour, account of Johnson’s purposeful, instinctive actions to seize the reins of government in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. Both are page-turners.
For bonus reading this year, I also want to call out a wonderful collection of books by FP‘s friends and family. Foreign Policy‘s contributors are in general a writerly bunch, but they’ve outdone themselves in 2012 on an array of subjects, from Afghanistan and the Arab Spring to the history of American generalship and the origins of the Cold War. Among the most notable: acclaimed new books by David Rothkopf, FP’s CEO and a weekly columnist, on Power, Inc., the centuries-long history of business and government working together (and not); Tom Ricks, FP‘s Best Defense blogger, on The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today; and Michael Dobbs, who somehow found time in between blogging the war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic on ForeignPolicy.com and live-tweeting the Cuban Missile Crisis on the occasion of its 50th anniversary to bring out Six Months in 1945, a gripping history of the passage from world war to Cold War in the space of just a few key months.
Other Foreign Policy standouts this year include the ebook we published by author and contributor Anna Badkhen, Afghanistan by Donkey, her moving account of a year’s reporting from the country’s forgotten, tormented north; Arab Uprising: the Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, by Marc Lynch of Abu Aardvark blog and Middle East Channel fame; Manhunt, the gripping backstory of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden by Peter Bergen, editor of the AfPak Channel; and Ian Bremmer of The Call coining the term “G-zero world” in his book Every Nation for Itself.
Over the course of the year, we also ran many excerpts from the year’s key international books, including must-reads from some terrific journalistic colleagues and friends: Michael Gordon‘s definitive Endgame history of the war in Iraq; Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran‘s great account of the flops and foibles of the American war in Afghanistan; and The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald‘s reported account of, and argument for, how the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus deal actually worked. Happy reading!
David Rothkopf, CEO and editor at large
Why Does the World Exist?, by Jim Holt (2012)
Foreign-policy specialists like to think of themselves as big thinkers. But all they do is grapple with global issues of the moment or, if they are visionaries, of the foreseeable future. And most of the really hard problems — like what to do about Israel and Palestine or how to stop global warming — are questions to which we already know the answers and for which we’re just searching for the political will to do what we must. That’s why, for me, Why Does the World Exist? was such a pleasure and a great escape. Not only did it cut right through to the biggest question of them all, but then Holt follows that question to philosophers and scientists who often (sometimes accidentally) bump into one another as they seek to wrap their brains around why their brains — or anything else for that matter — are here. Or why there is a here here. And what it might mean if none of this had happened at all. The prose is great, the questions even greater. And like walking around all day in ankle weights, once you’ve moved on, everything else will seem that much easier to handle. Unless of course, the whole topic leaves you curled up in the fetal position. Which — spoiler alert — could be a problem for the existentially anxious.
Blake Hounshell, managing editor
I’m going to take a slightly different tack, and tell you which books NOT to read — this year or ever. Don’t read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I made the mistake of diving into these five tomes, the best known of which is A Game of Thrones, for which the rightly popular HBO show is named, and I’ve regretted it ever since. Do not make my mistake. Not only are the books badly written, they’re so incredibly long and poorly structured that it seems the editors gave up by the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, which ranges over 1,040 tedious pages. (I use it to combat insomnia.) Martin is planning two more novels to end the series. I beg you not to read them. Want real insight into politics as a blood sport? Read The Prince.
Tom Ricks, blogger
Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam, by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen (2012) and Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick (2010)
I found myself thinking about two books quite a lot over the last year. Hanoi’s War, which I wrote about here, made me understand the Vietnam War differently. (And even now, nearly five decades after it ended, we really don’t understand it well.) The other book is Black Hearts, which I wrote about here. It is an amazingly good account of how an Army unit went bad in Iraq, and raises major questions about the quality of senior leadership in that war. Many of those questions remain unanswered.
Dan Drezner, blogger
Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes (2012)
In a year in which I could not stop blogging about the U.S. presidential election and the peculiar folkways of America’s foreign-policy community, I find that I can’t get Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites out of my head. It’s an engaging read that addresses the question of whether a meritocratic elite can really stay meritocratic over extended periods of time. Hayes thinks the answer is no, and puts together a decent brief for that case, looking at a welter of different scandals and breakdowns of elite competence. It’s a good book in no small part because Hayes acknowledges his own inner conflicts. As disgusted as he is with Enron, Lehman, Katrina, Penn State, Iraq and other elite catastrophes, he has peered into the maw of the populists who rail against these elites, and they give him a slight shudder as well. It is impossible not to read this book and think about how it applies to both America’s foreign-policy community and the “Davos culture” as well.
Steve Walt, blogger
Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and The Crisis of Zionism, by Peter Beinart (2012)
Chandrasekaran’s Little America is a mordant, moving, and ultimately depressing account of how the U.S. national security establishment failed the nation in the Afghan War. Impossible to read without becoming angry and depressed, but don’t let that stop you.
Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism is a heartfelt cri de coeur from a liberal Zionist who fears for Israel’s future and believes American Jewry must save Israel from itself. His account of Obama’s humiliation at the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel lobby is worth reading all by itself, but those chapters should not obscure his broader message.
James Traub, columnist
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James Scott (2009)
For a class I am teaching on nation-building, I have just read this extraordinary work by James Scott, a political scientist at Yale. Scott argues that state formation inevitably breeds flight, and thus that frontier people, or tribals, are not “primitives” but rather conscientious objectors whose culture is formed around the idea of self-government. His chief example is the wonderfully named “Zomia,” a vast region that stretches from southwestern China to the hill country of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. Scott reminds us that state formation often has more to do with brutal repression than with enlightened “modernization,” and he honors both the dignity and the relevance of those who have lit out for the territory, and stayed there.
Aaron David Miller, columnist
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
A reread: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit — an indispensable and cautionary tale that should be required for all U.S. officials who doubt the power of small to best big and who themselves have big ideas about America saving the world. If only Bilbo Baggins could be secretary of state.
Mohamed El-Erian, columnist
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)
In his latest book, Taleb again demonstrates his ability to think outside the box in a manner applicable to many aspects of our personal and professional lives — and he does so in his typically lively and engaging fashion. In addition to shedding insights on error correction processes, the book advances our general understanding of how different systems operate, including why they differ in responding to unanticipated shocks. In the process, Taleb provides important insights into how to increase systemic resilience through a mix of adaptability and agility. I enjoyed reading this book; and I learned from it.
Ian Bremmer, blogger
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)
I love when a book establishes a new framework or philosophical perspective that you can map across a wide variety of disciplines. Taleb’s premise is that the opposite of fragility is not indestructibility — resilience to shocks and turmoil is only half the battle. Rather, the inverse is the antifragile: those things that improve amid chaos, and even need disorder to evolve and flourish. Taleb establishes examples from diverse areas of life, spanning from biology (human bones strengthen when stressed) to business sectors (the death of a restaurant bolsters those that remain and can learn from the mistakes). Perhaps he sums up the spectrum best through nature. “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes a fire,” he writes. This concept is a compelling way of reimagining the tenets of “creative destruction” and Darwinian evolution — and taking what has been widely applied in assessing markets and finding less intuitive applications.
I particularly identified with the implications in my own field, political science: The antifragile is as an intriguing blueprint for nations, institutions, and even individuals amid uncertainty and disorder. In a G-Zero world with a growing leadership vacuum and shocks — political, economic, or environmental — that will become more frequent (though no more predictable), those who can build up their antifragility are poised for success.
Michael Dobbs, blogger
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (2012)
The most topical book about foreign affairs that I read in 2012 was Robert K. Massie’s biography of an 18th-century Russian empress, Catherine the Great. Follow Catherine’s transformation from a product of the European Enlightenment to an all-powerful autocrat, and you have the perfect explanation for Russia’s reversion to type after the promise and turmoil of the glasnost era. With his absorbing narrative, Massie describes how Catherine arrived in Russia with liberal ideas and became the friend and heroine of Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Diderot. But the need to defend a vast territory from internal and external enemies caused the German-born princess to wage a Chechnya-like campaign against secessionist regions and turn into a Russian nationalist, drawing support from conservative institutions such as the Russian Orthodox Church. Analysts of the Putin era, take note.
Peter Feaver, blogger
Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Rise of American Power, by David Sanger (2012)
The book that had the biggest impact on my thinking this year was David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, Sanger adopts a very sympathetic tone, and clearly comes away with a favorable view of Obama’s strategic approach. But he is an honest enough writer that he describes wart after wart and the cumulative effect is, in my opinion, quite damning. Heading in to 2013, virtually every one of the strategy lines Sanger reports on in the book is unraveling. It is not too much of a stretch to say that 2013 will be spent trying to forge new strategies for each of the security challenges Sanger identifies. Bottom line: If you want to understand why things look so bleak on the national security front, read this book.
Will Inboden, blogger
Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age, by Francis Gavin (2012)
Almost seven decades into the nuclear age, we still know a lot less about nuclear weapons and foreign policy than we may think — or at least that is one of several surprising and compelling arguments in Francis Gavin’s new book Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age. Much of the academic scholarship in this field has been dominating by political science, which in turn has focused either on abstract theories of nuclear use and non-use, or quantitative modeling that is methodologically esoteric and based on very limited data sets. To this intellectual milieu, Gavin (who in full disclosure is a colleague of mine at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law here at the University of Texas-Austin) brings instead the historian’s method of archival research to his fascinating and impressive study. Using newly declassified documents, he opens an entirely new dimension to our understanding of nuclear statecraft, past and present. In the process this book challenges much of the received wisdom on nuclear history and statecraft, whether the “myth of flexible response,” the illusory stability of the Cold War, or the various shibboleths held by all sides on the nonproliferation debate. As nuclear issues in places like North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan continue to dominate headlines and fill policymakers’ inboxes today, Gavin’s timely book brings welcome perspective and insight.
Clyde Prestowitz, blogger
Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance, by Willy Shih and Gary Pisano (2012)
This book is about the great importance of manufacturing for a nation’s long-term prosperity. It particularly makes the point that many worker skills are learned on the job and that there is no substitute for manufacturing in learning certain critical skills that are applicable across a wide range of industries. Producing Prosperity further argues that R&D and innovation are disproportionately supported by manufacturing and that innovation is as much a matter of what happens on the factory floor as it is a matter of what happens in the research lab. The book undercuts a lot of conventional wisdom and orthodox policy thinking, particularly with regard to globalization and international trade.
Gordon Adams, NatSec columnist
The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, by David Unger (2012)
Unger’s is yet another book about the expansion of the national security state in the United States since World War II and the extent to which we are just letting it happen, at the cost of our democracy and a sensible foreign policy. This trend has continued, inexorably, under both political parties. Republicans (except for Ron Paul and the libertarians) think it is the right thing to do. Democrats let the trend continue, either because they are liberal interventionists and the security state is a tool at hand or because they are afraid that they well be called weak on security. We are less secure as a result.
John Arquilla, NatSec columnist
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt (2012)
The increasing economic and military strength of China poses, to many observers, the principal strategic challenge of our time. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom suggests that the rise of China could have happened a century-and-a-half ago, when a rebel movement bent on modernization along Western lines very nearly toppled the aging Qing Dynasty. That it did not was largely due to British, and to some extent American, intervention in the war. The conflict is utterly shocking in its scale of destruction, with at least 20 million dead over a decade-plus of bitter fighting. Platt does very well in illuminating the broad sweep of this catastrophe; but he also pulls off something magical by telling this story through the eyes of a handful of principal players. In particular, the skillful military duel between Hong Rengan of the rebels and Zeng Guofan, a Confucian scholar turned soldier of the regime, is rendered with great verve. Neither can achieve a decisive advantage as the struggle rages back and forth along the Yangtze River. Their tale ends in irony, with Hong the liberal modernizer becoming the eventual victim of Western intervention. Today, leading powers are still worrying about a modernizing China — a place where tensions with an aging ruling regime are also being played out. Let us hope the parallels are not too close.
Rosa Brooks, NatSec columnist
The Profession, by Steven Pressfield (2012)
What happens when a risk-averse and increasingly corporatized society confronts an ever-riskier world? In The Profession, novelist Steven Pressfield imagines a near future (2032) in which the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been succeeded by two decades of chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East and Central Asia. States, corporations, religious factions, and terrorists jostle for control of the region’s oil, a dirty bomb has struck California, and Iran and Iraq have fought their third war. America, sick of the expense and bloodshed associated with inconclusive foreign conflicts, has largely outsourced its national security to high-tech private mercenary armies. “The president and Congress had at last found a means of projecting U.S. power that was (a) mission-effective, (b) cost-effective, and (c) did not run foul of the extreme risk aversion of the American people,” writes Pressfield’s narrator Gilbert “Gent” Gentilhomme, a former Marine now employed by Force Insertion, the world’s largest private military force. Banks, oil companies and foreign states are also employing private armies: Force Insertion, for instance, has a contract with Exxon-Mobil and BP “for all of Western Iraq,” in addition to numerous contracts with the US government. But as treacherous civilian leaders and an odd assortment of ‘investors’ vie for dominance, Gent begins to suspect that he and his comrades are being manipulated. Ultimately, Gent finds himself torn between his deep personal loyalty to James Salter, the disgraced but charismatic former U.S. Marine General who runs Force Insertion, and his growing fear that Salter’s disdain for his nominal “employers” could prove devastating for what little remains of American democracy. Pressfield is best known for his meticulously researched historical fiction (mostly set in ancient Greece), but in The Profession he paints a persuasive picture of a far from impossible future. From his richly imagined descriptions of just over-the-horizon military technologies to his matter of fact portrayal of war and death, the book is a chilling meditation on civil-military relations in a world in which the line between public and private has become irrevocably blurred. (Reposted with permission from the Highlands Forum.)
Amy Zegart, NatSec columnist
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins (2009)
I should have read The Forever War when it came out in 2009, but in a way I’m glad I didn’t. As Iraq and Afghanistan move from headlines to memories, Filkins offers a haunting, lasting portrait from the trenches. You can almost hear the bullets whizzing past, feel your heart racing during his danger-courting 5-mile runs through the streets of Baghdad, smell the rotting dog lying next to him the night he had to sleep outside in the street. And you can’t help but sense the anguish Filkins, a correspondent for the New York Times when he reported the book, still feels over the death of a soldier who went first up the stairs to help him get a photograph for the paper. At a time when there’s a national unspoken desire to forget Iraq and Afghanistan, Filkins helps us remember both conflicts and their human toll on everyone involved, including himself.
Unmaking the West: ‘What-If’ Scenarios That Rewrite World History, edited by Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker (2006)
I wasn’t much interested in another book about the rise of the West. But I am always interested in anything Phil Tetlock writes. Tetlock is one of the pioneers in understanding how cognitive psychology influences international relations. His work on expert political judgment — which found that dart-throwing monkeys predict future outcomes about as well as experts — is profound and important. And I say that despite the fact that I was one of the experts the monkeys probably beat. In Unmaking the West, Tetlock, Lebow, and Parker edit a series of essays about counterfactual reasoning. Their mission is the same as Stephen Jay Gould’s — reminding us, “Humans are here by the luck of the draw, not the inevitability of life’s direction or evolution’s mechanism.” In social science, as well as evolutionary science, we tend to think the past is far more inevitable than it actually was. While the substantive focus of this book is challenging the idea that the rise of the West was somehow unavoidable, the real agenda is conceptual: reminding us of the dangers of hindsight bias and the need to think about thinking.
Micah Zenko, NatSec columnist
Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011, by the Geneva Declaration
My favorite book published last year was actually a report, the Geneva Declaration’s Global Burden of Armed Violence. The updated 2011 version provides a comprehensive, data-based assessment of the wide variability of armed violence around the world, and challenges many widely held analytical assumptions and policy responses regarding the purposeful use of violence against others. For example, of the 526,000 people killed by lethal violence, only 10 percent died from armed conflicts, either through civil or inter-state wars. Read the report as a pairing with the best movie I saw in 2012, The Interrupters, a haunting documentary about the efforts of Project Ceasefire, a grass-roots organization dedicated to preventing the spread of an idea in inner-city Chicago: that it is acceptable to resolve grievances through gun violence.
Christian Caryl, Democracy Lab editor
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum (2012)
Anne Applebaum (an FP contributor) explores a crucial moment in recent European history that has never been explored with the depth and discernment that it deserved. This book fills the gap.
Joshua E. Keating, associate editor
Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, by Norman Davies (2012)
In Vanished Kingdoms, eminent English historian Davies explores the history of the European countries that never made it. From Alt Clut to Burgundy to Erturia, these kingdoms were once as established as the states we know today and in some cases lasted for centuries. Davies makes the case that despite what modern nationalists might believe about the ancient heritage and naturalness of their nations, it’s largely due to flukes of history that today’s list of countries features France, Germany, and Ukraine, but not Aragon, Prussia, or Galicia.
Preeti Aroon, copy chief
The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker (2011)
We humans are living in the safest, least violent, most humane time ever, and Steven Pinker’s exhaustive 832-page book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves no stone unturned in proving it. The Harvard University social scientist addresses multiple forms of violence — war, homicide, torture, domestic violence, child abuse, animal cruelty — and shows definitively how humankind has developed institutions, norms, and values that have led to a kinder, gentler, less violent world. He skewers every possible objection you could throw at him (sorry, John Arquilla), and the book leaves you feeling so thankful you’re living in the 21st century A.D. — and not the 21st century B.C. Especially fascinating are Pinker’s discussions of how first-person literature fostered empathy for other peoples and how we’ve reduced violence simply by decriminalizing victimless behaviors (blasphemy, witchcraft, homosexuality).
Margy Slattery, assistant managing editor
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (2012)
It hardly feels original to heap praise on Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction. But there’s a reason Katherine Boo’s cheering squad has grown so big. For one thing, the book, a portrait of Mumbai’s gritty Annawadi slum and several of its residents, models superb long-form storytelling: Boo has spun three-and-a-half years of meticulous reporting into a narrative with rich characters and dramatic moments large and small. More than that, I found Behind the Beautiful Forevers an empathetic, though not preachy, account of how poverty saturates the lives it afflicts — a reality made all the more stark with India’s economic rise as a backdrop.
Ty McCormick, assistant editor
The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s war in Arabia, by Gregory D. Johnsen (2012)
Written with the rare combination of scholarly depth and journalistic flair, The Last Refuge opens a critical window into one of the most important but least covered fronts in the war on terror. Beginning in the early 1990s, when a wave of Arab fighters flooded into Yemen from Afghanistan and fought what they saw as a second jihad against the country’s southern socialists, Johnsen’s book chronicles the spectacular rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the group responsible for the failed bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in 2009 as well as numerous other attempts to strike inside the United States. At the heart of this drama is the tortured relationship between the Yemeni government — the sometimes-friend and sometimes-foe of al Qaeda — and Washington, which predictably loses interest in Yemen every time the terrorist threat appears to wane. Today, AQAP is stronger than it’s ever been, despite ramped-up drone strikes and a record aid package to the fragile government in Sanaa. To understand how we got to this point, Johnsen’s book is essential reading.
Elias Groll, editorial assistant
The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass (1959)
For many years, Gunter Grass was known as Germany’s conscience. A writer whose work has heavily criticized the German people’s complicity in the Holocaust, Grass presented himself as an uncompromised voice whose ethical commitments grappled head-on with his country’s troubled, bloody history. For attempting to confront and describe a past that seemingly defies description, Grass earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. In its prize citation, the Swedish Academy praised Grass as a writer “whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history” and said his 1959 novel, The Tin Drum, “comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.” So it is perhaps not surprising that the literary establishment exploded in anger when Grass in 2006 revealed the full extent of his involvement in the Nazi regime. Until then, Grass had only admitted to serving as a helper in a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battery, but in his 2006 autobiography, Peeling the Onion, he revealed that he had in fact been a member of the Waffen SS, one of the most brutal units in the Nazi army. Although Grass himself had not participated in any of the numerous war crimes carried out by the unit, the disclosure seemed to fly in the face of the public persona of moral accountability that Grass had constructed for himself. A headline in the Economist summed up the prevailing sentiment: “Another hero lost.” But if anything, the revelation of Grass’s Nazi past makes his landmark work, The Tin Drum — an at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a dwarf with quasi-magical powers during World War II — a fascinating historical document from a writer who is perhaps trying to have it both ways: to impugn German collaboration while at the same time obfuscating his own guilt.