Daniel W. Drezner

The ten worst books in international relations

The ten worst books in international relations

It’s "top ten" week here at Foreign Policy, and the powers that be have asked me to chip in with a list of my own. 

The thing is, Steve Walt poached a lot of the books I would have named on my own list of top ten international relations books (if there’s real demand for a "top 10" books in international political economy specifically, let me know in the comments and I’ll put one up next week).   

So, rather than replicate Steve, let’s have some fun — what are the ten worst books in international relations?

In one sense, this question is difficult to answer, in that truly bad books are never read.  Smply putting down books by bad people — Mein Kampf, etc. — is kind of superfluous.  The books matter less than the person.

So, let’s be clear on the criteria:  to earn a place on this list, we’re talking about: 

  • Books by prominent international policymakers that put you to sleep;
  • Books that were influential in some way but also spectacularly wrong, leading to malign consequences.

In chronological order:

1. Norman Angell, The Great Illusion.  This book has been widely misinterpreted, so let’s be clear about what Angell got right and got wrong.  He argued that the benefits from international trade vastly exceeded the economic benefits of empire, and therefore the economic motive for empire no longer existed.  He was mostly right about that.  He then argued that an enlightened citizenry would glom onto this fact and render war obsolete.  Writing this in 1908, he was historically, spectacularly wrong.

2.  E.H. Carr, Nationalism and After.  Carr’s Twenty Years’ Crisis is one of the best books about international relations ever written.  This is not that book.  Here, Carr argues that nationalism is a passing fad and that eventually the number of nation-states in the world will be reduced to less than twenty.  Since this book was published, U.N. membership has at least tripled. 

3.  Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb.  The first of many, many, many books in which Ehrlich argued that the world’s population was growing at an unsustainable rate, outstripping global resources and leading to inevitable mass starvation.  Ehrlich’s book committed a triple sin.  First, he was wrong on the specifics.  Second, by garnering so much attention by being wrong, he contributed to the belief that alarmism was the best way to get people to pay attention to the environment.  Third, by crying wolf so many times, Ehrlich numbed many into not buying actual, real environmental threats. 

4.  Shintaro Ishihara, The Japan That Can Say No:  Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals  Written at the peak of Japan’s property bubble, Shintaro argued that Japan was destined to become the next great superpower.  Whoops. 

5.  Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies.  Plenty of management consultants have tried to write the Very Big Book.  And plenty of authors have predicted the demise of the nation-state in their books.  Ohmae encapsulates both of these trends. Still, there’s something extra that puts him on this list — over 90% of the footnotes in this book are to… other works by Kenichi Ohmae.  It’s the most blatant use of the footnote as a marketing strategy that I have ever seen.   

6.  Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan GhostsKaplan argued that "ancient hatreds" guaranteed perpetual conflict in the Balkans.  According to his aides, this book heavily influenced Bill Clinton’s reluctance to intervene in the Balkans for the first two years of his presidency. 

7.  Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon.  Back when I was a grad student, I needed to check out the memoirs of Reagan cabinet officials to see if there was anything that could e gleaned about a particular case.  George Shultz’s memoirs were chock-full of useful bits of information.  This book, on the other hand, was a vast wasteland of barren prose. 

8.  Warren Christopher, In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era. Makes Weinberger’s memoirs seem exciting by comparison.  ZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

9.  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire.  Ordinarily, this massive exercise in generating non-falsifiable arguments about an actorless empire would have slipped into obscurity a few months after publication.  In this case, however, Emily Eakin claimed in the New York Times that it was the "next big thing" in international relations.  Which meant this book was inflicted on a whole generation of poor, unsuspecting IR grad students. 

10.  Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm:  The Case For Invading Iraq.  In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pollack’s book became the intellectual justification for Democrats to support the invasion.  And we now know that result.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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