Top 10 International Relations Books By Women

Stephen Walt's favorite books by women scholars (and a few journalists and public intellectuals).


So when I offered my “top ten” list of favorite books in international relations, how many of you noticed that all of the authors were men? I did, and so did my wife. Not only that, but most of the suggestions sent in by commenters referred to books written by men as well. Of course, my interests tend to lie on the security side of the field, which has tended to attract more men than women until fairly recently. And my list leaned toward recognized classics, which biased it towards older works (and thus to eras when women scholars were fewer in number). But I’ve been in the business long enough to know that subtler forms of bias might be involved too, so I thought I’d put out a list of some of my favorite books by women scholars (plus a few journalists/public intellectuals). It’s not hard to come up with ten (and a few more).

1. Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. To take nothing away from others, this is arguably the most influential book by a woman scholar in the field of security affairs, and it cast a long shadow over subsequent studies of intelligence failure and strategic surprise.

2. Susan Strange, States and Markets. Strange was a pioneering figure in the history of international studies in Britain, and a clear-eyed thinker and writer. Frankly, I enjoyed some of her articles (such as “Cave! Hic Dragone: A Critique of Regime Analysis,” in the 1983 International Organization issue on regimes) more than her books, but the overall contribution earns a place on my list.

3. Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. This book helped convince me that constructivist analysis could say something important and tangible about security affairs.  It’s sharply written and persuasive, too. Need I say more?

4. Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam. A Pulitzer-prize winning investigation of Vietnamese society and a piercing critique of America’s tragic intervention there. Students of missile defense should also read her Way out There in the Blue: Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, a fascinating account of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”

5. Kathryn Sikkink and Margaret Keck, Activists beyond Border: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Both Keck and Sikkink have written other important works, but this is my favorite, as it brought to light an under-studied (and one might argue increasingly important) phenomenon.

6. Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: American in the Age of Genocide. Another Pulitzer Prize-winner by (full disclosure) a friend and colleague. Power is no realist, but I think the book’s lessons point in that direction. If great powers like the United States are too self-interested to do very much to save the lives of others (a tendency she deplores), why expect that to change? A wonderful book, full of passion and insight and gripping prose.

7. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. When one considers that issues of the “commons” are now central to much of world politics, and how institutions will be central to any effective solution, this was a remarkably far-sighted book.

8. Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions. Although primarily a work of comparative historical sociology, Skocpol’s path breaking work also emphasizes the role of international pressures in driving great revolutions.  Like its author, a work to be reckoned with.

9. Beth Simmons, Who Adjusts?: Domestic Sources of Foreign Economic Policy during the Interwar Years, 1923-1939. For those of you who thought Charles Kindleberger answered all your questions about the Great Depression. And worth re-reading in light of our current situation.

10. Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population. I mentioned this in my earlier discussion, and can’t resist highlighting it here. The argument is simple but striking and could have far-reaching implications. Short version: if a cultural preference for male offspring leads to too many unattached men in your society, look out.

Like my earlier top ten, this list just scratches the surface of interesting works on different aspects of world politics. Other obvious contenders (i.e., books I’ve enjoyed and/or learned a lot from) would include Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics; Jo-Ann Tickner, Gendering World Politics; Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War, Monica Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence; Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill; Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking; Debora Spar, The Cooperative Edge, Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919, Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire, and Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo.  And yes, I know I’m leaving plenty of deserving scholars out, but I’m confident readers will tell me who I missed.

Photo credit:YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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