- By Elephants in the Room contributorsElephants in the Room is a blog about U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump, written by experienced GOP policymakers, scholars, and others not currently working in the new administration. It is curated by co-editors Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.
As summer travel and holidays get underway, your Elephants in the Room contributors have resurrected a tradition from our erstwhile Shadow Government days and put together our summer reading list.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself, by Garrett Graff. This is a deeply reported and richly detailed account of one of the most sensitive secrets of the Cold War era: the U.S. government’s myriad plans to preserve some semblance of a functioning, democratic government in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. These efforts, collectively known as continuity of government and continuity of operations plans, developed incrementally over the decades of the nuclear era as leaders grappled with the daunting task of thinking the unthinkable. Graff’s skepticism that these plans and systems would actually work is palpable and we all should be deeply grateful they have never been put to the ultimate test. This is a topic I studied very closely at the start of my professional career, and though I have just started the book, I am amazed at what Graff was able to uncover. So far, I am learning something on every page. And the nuggets add up to one important insight: As difficult as the geopolitical challenges are that preoccupy our leaders today, they still do not add up to the civilization-threatening challenge of deterring or surviving a global thermonuclear war.
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1940, by Lynne Olson. A gripping account of the political battle with the first America Firsters. Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes across as a poll-driven politician, Charles Lindbergh as a tragic figurehead, and Wendell Willkie as a principled internationalist who bucked his own party to save the country. Eerily reminiscent of the present, but inspiring in its own way.
Escape to Pagan: The True Story of One Family’s Fight to Survive in World War II Occupied Asia, by Brian Devereux. The true story of a woman who fled with her aging mother and young toddler across warn-torn Burma as marauding Japanese soldiers, Chinese deserters, hill tribes, and poisonous snakes threatened them at every turn. Written by the toddler a half-century later.
Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara. Not for the erudite, but his you-are-there novel about the 1st Marine Division fighting its way out of the Chosin Reservoir is great beach reading. My favorite character: Colonel Ray Murray, whom I met at a conference on the Korean War in 1995 where some lefty academic was droning on about American imperialism during the Cold War. The 85-year old Murray stood up with his Medal of Honor hanging around his neck and said to the audience, “I didn’t carry my Marines through the blood and snow of Chosin Reservoir to listen to this b*** s***!” Shaara nails his character perfectly.
Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions: The Mirage of Military Modernity, by Thomas-Durell Young. A clear-eyed assessment from a defense institution-building practitioner of the effectiveness of U.S. assistance in reforming the defense institutions in Central and Eastern Europe over the last 25 years. Spoiler alert: not so much.
Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself, by Garrett Graff. The “Fresh Air” interview alone was gripping — can’t wait to read it.
Jetzt: Geschichte meines Abenteuers mit der Phantasie, by Karl Heinz Bohrer. Well, I’m going to try. It might take me until next summer. But German intellectuals say it’s important — thank God for dictionaries.
Two books sitting on my nightstand, both highly recommended by colleagues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Mark Dubowitz insisted that I read Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Peter Schweitzer’s history of NSDD-75, the wildly successful Reagan administration strategy that helped defeat the Soviet empire.
Reuel Gerecht calls Misagh Parsa’s Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Can Succeed the most important English-language book ever written on the Islamic Republic. Parsa concludes that — former President Barack Obama’s delusions notwithstanding — the theocracy birthed in 1979 is probably incapable of meaningful reform. Change, when it comes, will far more likely result from the next iteration of 2009’s Green Revolution, a popular movement “to transform the political system through a disruptive, revolutionary route.” I’ll leave it to readers to divine the practical implications of these two important works.
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden. Bowden is one of the great journalists of our generation, and with this book he provides a captivating account of the pivotal battle that did so much to alter the trajectories of not just the Vietnam War, but also American politics and our nation’s global posture. With its capacious research that includes the perspectives of combatants and civilians, Vietnamese and Americans, presidents and privates, it epitomizes what a definitive account should be. This is also the type of military history that one wishes more academic historians would take up, but given the near extinction of military history in university history departments, it is left to skilled journalists like Bowden to fill the gap.
Patriotism is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments That Redefined American Conservatism, by Steven P. Hayward. A famous line — “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small” — has been variously attributed to Wallace Sayre, Henry Kissinger, and Jesse Unruh. Regardless of who coined the phrase, it is generally true, but as this captivating new book demonstrates, sometimes the stakes are of great consequence. In this case Hayward’s book uses the epic academic feud between two protégés of Leo Strauss, political philosophers Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns (both of whom I was privileged to know a bit and learn from), to trace the various intellectual strands of modern conservative thought. This account is all the more illuminating and relevant as American conservatism seeks to navigate its new divisions and uncertainties being wrought by the Trump era.
Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain, by John Bew. For most Americans, Clement Attlee is known only as the answer to a trivia question: Which British politician defeated and succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister at the end of World War II? Bew, one of the finest historians writing today, shows rather that Attlee was one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century, who created the modern British welfare state while also managing the final decline of the British Empire and embedding the United Kingdom in the emerging Western alliance against Soviet communism.
Part of the advantage of moving from George Washington University to North Dakota as President of the University of North Dakota is that I have more five-hour car rides, more time to read books. Let me recommend five books that will help you understand the angst that is roiling today’s civic landscape and that provide prescriptions for addressing today’s accelerating changes and heightened activism.
My reading list begins with Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. Anyone trying to understand the change in the electorate that led to today’s surging populism should begin with this riveting portrayal of a culture in crisis — that of white, working-class Americans who no longer believe they can drive their own destiny. In the end, Vance’s autobiography is an ode to accountability. It has been a long time since I have cried and laughed this much reading a book. I can’t wait for the movie.
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, by Thomas Friedman outlines the impacts of how three combined, logarithmic waves of change — technological advance, globalization, and mother nature — are resulting in upheaval that is disrupting every aspect of our lives and fueling the uncertainty that is agitating today’s politics and geopolitics.
Friedman strikes themes similar to those struck by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, which is also worth a read. Both books are good at describing the challenges we face. The solutions they prescribe provide food for thought, even if not always prudent direction.
Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World helps you understand how to effectively innovate and champion new ideas. During today’s period of rapid upheaval, Grant’s book provides actionable insights into how you can keep driving change, rather than being driven by it.
You would expect me to say that no 2017 reading list would be complete without my new book, Shapeholders — Business Success in the Age of Activism. I update the rules for an organization’s engagement with society reflecting the rise of activism and expanded political involvement in commercial affairs. I introduce the concept of “shapeholders” — the political, regulatory, media, and activist actors that have no natural stake in an organization’s success, but significant ability to shape its opportunities and risks. The book outlines steps to effectively engage shapeholders to sidestep conflict, find ways to profitably collaborate, and when necessary, win political skirmishes.
The Retreat of Western Liberalism, by Edward Luce. I don’t agree with all of Ed’s views, but he is always worth reading. His ideas are thought provoking, he writes beautifully, and he takes on central issues — in this case, whether popular discontent is signaling the end of Western liberal democracy.
The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan, by Sebastian Mallaby. A biography of the former Federal Reserve chairman. Everything one wants in a summer nonfiction read. Monetary policy has leapt to the forefront of international economic policymaking (quantitative easing, saving the eurozone) and Greenspan heralded the ascent of central banker as demigod. Biography is a particularly pleasurable way to pick up useful background, especially when an author writes as well as Mallaby does and the subject is as colorful as Greenspan.
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, by Yuval Levin. Domestic distrust has pulled down U.S. trade policy and foreign policy. Levin is usually domestic in focus, but these are the key underpinnings of the U.S. global position, and he is a very insightful commentator.
Argentina’s Economic Reforms of the 1990s in Contemporary and Historical Perspective, by Sonia Cavallo Runde and Domingo Cavallo (yes, my wife and father in law’s book) — an English-language, economic history of Argentina.
By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, by Michael Green. A history of U.S. grand strategy in Asia from our nation’s founding.
The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, by Eliot Cohen. This book argues that “soft power” is not enough. As a soft power person, I agree. We need hard power too. It’s a fabulous read.
Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism, by Mark Kennedy. The book describes the new media and civil society environment shaping and impacting business and how to manage it.
Howard French, Everything Under the Heavens. With all the facile Thucydides comparisons currently being pushed, it was a real treat to have a journalist with deep experience describe China’s perspective without trying to force it into any pattern other than its own. I especially liked his attentiveness to where China’s self image is myth rather than history. His description of China’s difficulties comes as a relief after seeing the country’s intentions revealed.
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks. It’s such fun to watch Ricks choose topics related to but broader afield from his defense expertise — I wouldn’t have linked Orwell and Churchill, but he makes a solid case they were two clarion voices, often reaching similar conclusions by very different experiential and intellectual routes. Intertwining the stories of their work and development gives a richer perspective on both: It grounds Churchill and illuminates the grim conclusions Orwell didn’t blanch at, like his dark, practical view that Spain was better off with Franco winning the civil war.
Nicole Bibbins Sedaca
Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, by Condoleezza Rice. In her book, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Rice reflects the Bush Administration’s approach to democracy promotion and that pivotal lessons that can be learned from that time. She discusses the nuances of promoting democracy, given the uniqueness of each country’s circumstances and the difficulty of promoting democracy in conflict or post-conflict situations. A practitioner-academic, Rice argues that the ideal conditions for promoting democracy will not occur perfectly in the real world, and that it is essential to focus therefore on how to promote democracy in difficult, fast-changing, and divergent situations. Having worked on democracy promotion under President Bush, I am keenly interested in reading Dr. Rice’s reflections — both what worked and what didn’t — and assessing the applicability of these lessons to our current environment. As many of us and the global community wrestle with how to respond to rising authoritarianism, internal and external threats to democracy, and waning American leadership on democracy promotion, it is essential to revisit why democracy promotion was foundational for many years, and the ramifications of the United States stepping back from its leadership role on this issue.
The Retreat of Western Liberalism, by Edward Luce. Luce’s book analyzes the weakening liberal world order, arguing that the decline is not a recent phenomenon, related only to events such as Brexit and the elections of populist leaders around the world, but rather a longer and sustained unraveling of the global system. He posits these recent events are a manifestation of a trend that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and was caused by an insufficient understanding of the foundational principles of the liberal world order and what it would take to maintain the order. Luce argues that it will be necessary to rebuild an economy that benefits the majority of its people, in order to maintain the West’s political gains and protect political liberties.
As we analyze and debate the factors that have contributed to the weakened liberal world order, I look forward to understanding Luce’s assessment of factors that have emerged since 1989, and contrasting his arguments with those that take a shorter-term view of the decline. And as I work with foreign policy graduate students on how to navigate and assess the current political environment, it will be useful to have Luce’s analysis to paint a picture of how we could have forecasted or prevented this unraveling many years ago.
This year’s early summer reading was aimed at preparing for an academic course in the U.K. on the Anglo-U.S. security relationship. Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There is an engaging oral history of the social life experienced by thousands of talented (and discreet) patriots who staffed the industrial-scale codebreaking enterprise there during the war. Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal is a terrific retelling of the serial betrayals of MI6’s Harold “Kim” Philby. That the U.S.-U.K. special intelligence relationship survived Philby’s decades of treachery is testament to a rare resilience, and places into useful context recent hyperventilating by the media about rifts in the alliance.
“Cabin reading” this month includes The Last Station: Underground Railroad of Quaker Corner, compiled by William Roy Mock. This is an amateur history of the dangerous work by several families of Friends who lived in a rural pocket of Bedford County, Pennsylvania and hid, protected, and transported hundreds of fugitive slaves northward over the Allegheny Front towards Canada. It’s a remarkable account of quiet, uncelebrated courage that appears to have included several (very) distant relatives.
Finally — and long overdue for the occupant of an office in Sid Richardson Hall here at the University of Texas-Austin — I’m resolved to finish Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes. This 2009 bestseller will, I’m assured, help demystify the cultural anthropology of the Lone Star State for a recent immigrant.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. This is the kind of meta-history that will captivate American readers on long flights to Asia in the same fashion as a good novel. It retells the story of the world from the perspective not of the small peninsula of Europe and its North American offshoot, but from the Eurasian heartland and the once-great empires of the Near East — from a starting point that is thousands of years old, long predating the rise of the West. Its scope is breathtaking, and the narrative usefully reorients one’s geopolitical compass as power again shifts to the east.
By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783, by Michael Green. The author spent many years researching this book and it promises to be the best in its class. The young American republic quickly emerged as a Pacific power determined to extend both its interests and its values. U.S. strategy in Asia has always privileged open markets and has been ever mindful of shaping regional balances of power while extending principles of liberty where possible. A useful corrective to the notion that America’s “pivot” to Asia began under Obama — and a reminder that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for “Asia for the Asians” is ahistorical given Washington’s enduring interests and role in the region.
India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia, by Srinath Raghavan. India was central to the allied war effort. Churchill thought Britain could prevail against Germany, even in the event of Nazi conquest of the British Isles, using the manpower, resources, and strategic reach of the subcontinent. Millions of Indians fought against the fascist powers — in Europe, North Africa, and Southeast Asia — in ways that were critical to the Allied victory. Mobilization transformed not only the war’s outcome, but also the political future of India and its neighborhood, including the British military recruiting ground of what became Pakistan.
All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power, by Thomas Wright. We are entering an age of intense geopolitical competition between states, with both Chinese and Russian power resurging and projecting into regions core to American interests. The liberal global order risks fracturing as a result of great-power revanchism, nativist currents in the West, terrorism and migration, the diffusion of power within states, and the collapse of sovereign order in the Middle East. Uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to its allies, to managing great-power competitors, and to an open international trading order compounds the stress. This book promises a roadmap for navigating these geopolitical currents in a way that could save the free world.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. Both books are about what life is (or has been) like for ordinary people — Russians in the former case, Americans in the latter.
Alexievitch writes about the disorientation that affected ordinary Russians during the Yeltsin years, which may explain, in part, why Putin is popular in Russia. Similarly, Vance illustrates the hardships that confront ordinary families in Appalachia, who feel neglected by the powers that be, and who have formed the backbone of President Donald Trump’s support. The contexts are different in Russia and Appalachia, but the similarities are eerie.
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