As we get into summer vacation season, we decided to revive a Shadow Government tradition and present another installment of our “beach reading list.” Following are the books that our Shadow Government contributors are reading this summer, and some brief comments why. As you’ll see it is a diverse and eclectic list, and if nothing else should show that foreign policy hands read about more than foreign policy. Read, and enjoy.
(Click widget to view a collection of all of the Shadow Government recommendations on Goodreads.)
How Baseball Explains America, Hal Bodley. I’ve always thought it’s impossible to understand the willful innocence of American culture in the 1950s without reference to the generation of men who came of age fighting World War II, their recoil from that horrific experience into a simpler moral universe, and baseball exemplifies that. Plus, the chapter “Change is Good” is a simple explanation of the way big data is revolutionizing the game.
War! What Is It Good For?, Ian Morris Morris makes smashing political correctness fun, and he does it with a sweeping mastery of numerous academic disciplines. I’m eager to read the chapter titled “The Last Best Hope of Earth: American Empire, 1989-?” I fervently hope his work portends a return to historians asking big questions.
Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman. There is simply no finer mind applied to the questions of national security in our time than Sir Lawrence. His argument that strategy as a process of constant and creative refinement to ensure goals and means are aligned is a gentle rebuke to those who seek the holy grail of a grand strategy. This book is a master class in the art of creating power and a really fun read.
Advise and Consent, Allen Drury. I had been hearing about this book for years and finally got around to reading it this summer. This Pulitzer-Prize winning novel in many ways remains as fresh and insightful about Washington today as it was when it was first published 55 years ago in 1959. The writing style alone makes it worth the read, with an abundance of arresting passages and memorable descriptions, and plenty of plot twists that kept me up late reading for several nights.
Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown. So I confess I first started reading this 15 years ago in graduate school, but never finished it. A couple of recent David Brooks’ New York Times columns about Augustine reminded me to return to this book — one of the greatest biographies ever written, about one of the most profound thinkers the world has known. Augustine’s life and thought indelibly shaped so many areas of human activity today, such as just war theory, the relationship between church and state, the simultaneous folly and nobility of human nature, and love.
Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War, Ken Adelman. The past few years have seen the beginnings of a scholarly reassessment of Reagan, who had been previously dismissed by much academic opinion as a lightweight, warmonger, or both. As scholars begin to appreciate Reagan’s strategic insights and Cold War leadership, a great help continues to be firsthand accounts by those who knew and worked with him. Adelman’s account, delightfully written and full of fresh insights, is among the best.
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, Erik Larson. Anyone planning time relaxing on the Gulf might want to read this, which I just finished. Larson, is better known for his recent history of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany and life in Berlin during the 1930s as Hitler consolidated power. In the Garden of Beasts was a more dense history but Isaac’s Storm is written with the same sense of tension and anticipation of dread happenings. Why read it if you’re on the Gulf enjoying the sun and sand? It is about the legendary hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900, still the worst natural disaster in American history in terms of loss of life. It also has something to say about bureaucratic hubris and overreach.
The Fifties, David Halberstam. Another suggestion is this big history of the 1950s that I’m, admittedly, only half way through. Written by David Halberstam, it is lively and filled with anecdotes from the time so can be read in a casual setting. It is a useful reminder that history did not begin when JFK became president and that the 1950s were not a boring time notable only for Mad Men selling fake dreams to gullible consumers. It also contains a few lessons about the dangers of disarming too fast and promising too much.
Chance, Kem Nunn. This latest novel by Kem Nunn is on the to-read list because everything he has written has been interesting and a lot has been outstanding. Pomona Queen was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1993, but my favorites are his first book Tapping the Source and his fourth The Dogs of Winter, which capture the danger and allure of surfing as a metaphor for life and death in California. And where better to spend a splendid vacation than on a California beach, whether with a board in tow or just a towel and a good read?
Patton’s Ghost Corps, Nathan Prefer. 20th Corps and the 94th Infantry Division had the job of cracking the Siegfried Line from December 1944 to February 1945. The cracking of the Siegfried line was one of the two major breaks in the defenses of Nazi Germany signaling the end of the Nazi regime. The fall of the Siegfried line lead to a swift run across Germany starting at Trier all the way across into (then) Czechoslovakia. My grandfather was in the 94th and I am rereading this history because of a recent trip to Europe to help rededicate the 94th Infantry Division Peace Monument on the Luxembourg-German border.
The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama. The new history of the Jews by acclaimed historian Schama is something I can’t wait to read. It has been given rave reviews, and I look forward to being inspired by one of the most consequential stories in human history.
Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order, G. John Ikenbery. A good analysis of the origin and evolution of the American order, as I am interested in how we preserve that order.
The Banker’s New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It, Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig. I’ve started in on this one. It’s a clear, engaging discussion of a topic that can be both dauntingly complex and very important.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. I have long admired Evan’s writing in the New Yorker and had the chance to talk with him when he spoke at The Chicago Council this spring. That only whet my appetite for more.
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton. A big, thick, historical novel, set in New Zealand — all good qualities for a summer read. And winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Politics, Aristotle. I’m teaching this again this summer, and no matter how many times I read it, it is enormously rewarding. It’s best read in association with the Nicomachean Ethics. Those in a hurry can concentrate on the first five books.
Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre, known for deep skepticism of the modern state, is one of the great philosophers of our day. This book begins with a reminder of how we are animals, closer to other animals than we sometimes like to think, and thus dependent on each other especially in early and later stages of life. That dependence is essential to understanding the virtues necessary to be independent practical reasoners and to understanding the common good (which is, necessarily, bound up with our own individual good). It’s an accessible read that will also reward re-reading in future years.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell. I continue to read this a few pages at a time, so it’s at least a mid-life project and maybe a lifetime effort. Very human and humane.
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Rick Atkinson. I found the first two installments of Atkinson’s trilogy fascinating, bringing to life aspects of the war I had never seen before. As the 70th anniversary commemoration reminds us, D-Day still speaks to us today.
Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science, Alex Pentland. A Duke colleague recommended this book to me on the margins of a conversation about how the move of our department from one campus building to another had changed departmental dynamics and, perhaps, departmental politics. Apparently, there is a lively field called “social physics” that studies just this phenomenon. In an age when we may be unaware of how we are the subjects of social experiments, it seems all the more important to bone up on how we are influenced by our social networks.
One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson. It doesn’t count as a beach reading list unless there is at least one fun book on the list. Bryson is my favorite author. He has an extraordinary knack for finding unusual connections between interesting and obscure anecdotes. So far, this book is proving to be an especially good installment in this genre. There is also an implicit insight for those of us in the security business: when we teach and write about policy history, we tend to follow just the single thread of a particular policy even though, in real life, that thread is interwoven amongst many others, some directly related and others related only because they happened concurrently. By tracing multiple story lines across a single summer, Bryson reminds me that policymakers are very much living in time and therefore a product of their times. Also, it is a reminder that what may thoroughly dominate headlines in the moment can be just as thoroughly forgotten decades later. I wonder what stories of 2014 will fall by the wayside like that.
What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer. Perhaps the best book ever written on presidential campaigns. Ben Cramer provides a tour de force of psychological insights, political maneuverings and character assessments of six presidential candidates seeking the 1988 Republican (Bush and Dole) and Democratic (Dukakis, Hart, Gephardt and Biden) nominations. No one will ever be granted the access that Ben Kramer enjoyed; his masterpiece has withstood the test of time.
Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May. A classic that I have been meaning to read for many years. Based on a course that the two professors jointly taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School, it uses case studies to examine how policy makers should make better choices.
Warrior Race: A History of the British at War, Lawrence James. Britain historically has combined extraordinary martial qualities with foundational democratic institutions. Not only the United States itself but the liberal international order it upholds today — one which has made more people more prosperous than any other — grew directly out of the British inheritance. The world we live in would look very different had Napoleon beat Wellington at Waterloo or Churchill not stood up to Hitler. In the post-heroic and morally muddled age we live in, this book is a useful reminder of the values that matter, and why sometimes democracies need to fight to uphold them.
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert Kaplan. Anyone who thinks the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors are a local issue should read this book, which argues that the South China Sea is the pivot of the emerging global balance of power, and the canary-in-the-coal mine for the future of U.S. power and the nature of China’s relations with the world as a budding superpower. Kaplan has written the definitive book on why the South China Sea matters in a strategic, global context.
Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson. Lays out the “killer apps” that helped a small collection of states at the western edge of Eurasia come to rule the world. These include property rights, pursuit of science, the embrace of competition, and the work ethic. Others have done this in weightier fashion: For an explanation of Western global dominance that covers literally all of human history, see Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules — for Now. But Niall’s book is learned, fun, and has flair.
The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Andrew Small. Forthcoming this summer from my German Marshal Fund colleague, who spent years not only interviewing in foreign ministry reception rooms in Beijing and Islamabad but trundling around back streets in places like Kashgar and Gilgit-Baltistan, bearded and dressed like a local, to understand the nature of one of the world’s most important and least understood alliances. Promises profound insights into the two countries that (outside the Middle East) dominate American anxieties about future security challenges.
Celeste Ward Gventer:
The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, Adam Tooze. The print edition of this does not come out until later in the year, but I downloaded the Kindle edition to start right away. Why? If you read Tooze’s Wages of Destruction, then no further explanation required. If not, you should! Tooze. Wow. He combines great scholarship, terrific writing, and convincing, swing-for-the-fences reinterpretations of twentieth-century history.
Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War, David C. Engerman, Nils Gilman, Mark H. Haefele, Michael E. Latham. Dissertation research! A great set of essays that includes pieces by several of the most thoughtful and articulate historians of modernization theory.
Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing, Kenneth P. Werrell. More dissertation research! A useful history and overview of a still-controversial strategic concept.
In the Light of What We Know: A Novel, Zia Haider Rahman. A friend insists that I read it, James Wood raved about it in a multipage New Yorker review, and I am intent on making time this summer to read fiction!
Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton.
Duty, Robert Gates.
The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson.
As the world evolves from the United States as the unipolar power to a global economic landscape of multiple, more evenly balanced economic powers, history suggests a more uncertain and potentially hostile future. Not only have multiple nations jostling for power historically led to conflict, but the rise of new powers has typically sparked great conflagrations.
The shadow of foreign turmoil is lurking ever more ominous in Syria, Iraq, and disputed islands in the Pacific. The changing global landscape makes leading the world to consensus on these and other matters ever more challenging.
It will be increasingly difficult for America to play a leadership role in world affairs, though this task will be no less essential. I have found that in all areas of life seeing situations from every angle reveals new paths to winning.
That is why I believe that even though I have not always agreed with their decisions, it is beneficial to read the recent firsthand accounts of those who have shaped the foreign policy of the United States in recent years — Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices and Robert Gates’ Duty.
I expect both to be give the principal’s point of view and seek to spin history to cast their role in a favorable light. Yet even with the bias that is natural in any autobiography, reading them can provide a review of recent activity and a stimulus for developing a personal worldview responsive to the characterization of events they advance.
One of the clear failures of our political system in recent years is our failure to accommodate competing points of view to move beyond agitation to action. This is not only evident in Washington, but also in the failure to reach agreement with the Iraqi government to continue to preserve a United States troop presence. The troops that remain in Japan and Korea to this day have shown to be a highly beneficial stabilizing force for the region, something that is sorely missing in Iraq.
The school I lead is committed to making democracy work, a goal that is impossible to consistently achieve in a divided land without collaborative effort. To better understand how to better surmount the obstacles to compromise in a way that allows you to achieve your core objectives, I have been reading The Spirit of Compromise, Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It by Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania and Dennis Thompson from Harvard. Their review of this unpopular but essential skill provides solid background seeking to move beyond shouting to governing.
The Turnaround, George Pelecanos. Pelecanos knows Washington. Not the halls of power that bookend Pennsylvania Avenue, but the streets, the neighborhoods, the history of the city, and its varying cultural and social milieus — the vibe. That’s his backdrop for terrific tales of crime, tragedy, redemption, race, and class, written with a literary flair and often profound feel for the human condition.
White Noise, Don Delillo. It took me almost 30 years to get to what many consider Delillo’s greatest work. I’m certain I don’t “get it,” but the man sure can write. An extended meditation on death, technology, alienation, and the general absurdity and dystopia of late 20th-century American life. And all written before the advent of the internet, big data, NSA surveillance, and the global war on terror.
Born to Run, Christopher McDougall. McDougall, like me, was in his spare time a middle-age, mediocre long-distance runner fighting off chronic injury. He went in search of a solution to his travails and thinks he found it in an obscure tribe of Mexican Indians who can allegedly run for days on makeshift sandals that are the antithesis of the modern American running shoe.
No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War, David E. Kaiser. I’ve been looking forward to this book by my former colleague David Kaiser since he first started work on it. Kaiser’s account of how Roosevelt formulated a grand strategy for the United States and then navigated constraints both domestic and foreign to see it through is a powerful reminder of just how important it is to have a president with vision, political acumen, and tenacity.
Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942, Ian W. Toll. Toll is a masterful storyteller, and the story he has to tell, that of the U.S. navy during the first six months of World War II, is a compelling one. Those who seek to understand what war at sea against a capable adversary entails need look no further than this book for a primer.
Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman and Reagan, Henry Nau. In contrast to seemingly interminable contemporary debates pitting “realists” against “liberal internationalists,” Nau reminds us that power and principle need not be uneasy bedfellows. Quite the opposite, he demonstrates how four presidents effectively spread freedom, used force to back diplomacy, and preserved national sovereignty.
President Me: The America That’s in My Head, Adam Carolla. Adam Carolla is one of the sharpest and wittiest observers of the human condition around. In his latest book, he details a political manifesto to redress many of contemporary America’s most annoying aspects. And besides, at least some summer reading should be fun.
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Francis Fukuyama. Part one of Fukuyama’s two part series on political order seen in historical perspective. These works are valuable for foreign policy actors and politicians as well as academics, who often forget to focus on fundamental issues like political order — what it is, where it comes from, how it is destroyed or maintained. Studies like this encourage attention to the big picture and the long view rather than slavish devotion to the political or media cycle.
Richelieu, Hillaire Belloc. A portrait of one of the world’s most interesting and capable statesmen drawn by one of the most interesting and insightful commenters and politicians. Like him or not, Cardinal Richelieu understood human nature and the nature of the emerging states system he was helping to produce.
Dictatorships and Double Standards, Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Re-reading this after reading Peter Collier’s bio of her entitled Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick provides some timeless insights worth pondering for those who set national security as the number one priority yet also desire to see freedom spread around the world.
The Giant of the French Revolution: Danton, A Life, David Lawday. The world continues to be roiled by revolution and social upheavals and none of these are possible without leading figures who inspire and channel forces of change often accompanied by violence. George-Jacques Danton is the indispensable figure of the French Revolution and understanding him and how he thought and acted can provide insight into the revolutionary mindset that foreign policy leaders deal with still today.
Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, Steven Sestanovich. In it, Sestanovich describes a cycle over the last seven decades of U.S. foreign policy of over-commitment followed by retrenchment. As I gather, Sestanovich argues against the misconceptions that the 20th century was characterized by bipartisanship in foreign policy and continuity between administrations. He demonstrates that U.S. willingness to engage in the world has always been the subject of fierce debate, has significantly ebbed and flowed, and that presidents have been most successful when they have had the flexibility and vision to course correct when necessary.
For those of us who believe in erring on the side of an active and engaged United States, it’s welcome news that the current trend toward retrenchment may be short-lived. I will be curious, though, to see how Sestanovich deals with our fiscal trajectory. The periods of active involvement he describes (Marshall Plan, New Frontier, GWOT) involved substantial commitment of resources. As others have described in more detail, the U.S. budget picture over the long-term, especially debt related to domestic entitlements, threatens to significantly constrain our flexibility to exercise leadership in the future.