Daniel W. Drezner

My three must-read U.S. foreign policy books for aspring politicians

I know I said I would post by book choices for aspiring senators/presidential candidates yesterday, but current events forced a slight delay.  So, you know the contest:  "if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?"  You now ...

I know I said I would post by book choices for aspiring senators/presidential candidates yesterday, but current events forced a slight delay.  So, you know the contest:  "if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?"  You now know (and are less than thrilled with) the readers' selections.  Below are my choices. 

My selections were based on three fundamental premises.  The first is that politicians do not lack in self-confidence.  This is an important leadership trait, but when it comes to foreign policy, some awareness of The Things That Can Go Wrong is really important.  So my choices try to stress the pitfalls of bad decision-making. 

The second assumption is that trying to force-feed social science principles onto a politico is a futile enterprise -- any decent advisor should provide that role.  What's more important is exposing politicians to the different schools of thought that they will encounter in foreign policy debates.  As with the zombie book, the idea is that by familiarizing individuals to the different theoretical approaches, they can recognize a realist or neoconservative argument when they hear it.  They should then be able to recall how well or how badly these approaches have done in the past, and think about the logical conclusions to each approach. 

I know I said I would post by book choices for aspiring senators/presidential candidates yesterday, but current events forced a slight delay.  So, you know the contest:  "if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?"  You now know (and are less than thrilled with) the readers’ selections.  Below are my choices. 

My selections were based on three fundamental premises.  The first is that politicians do not lack in self-confidence.  This is an important leadership trait, but when it comes to foreign policy, some awareness of The Things That Can Go Wrong is really important.  So my choices try to stress the pitfalls of bad decision-making. 

The second assumption is that trying to force-feed social science principles onto a politico is a futile enterprise — any decent advisor should provide that role.  What’s more important is exposing politicians to the different schools of thought that they will encounter in foreign policy debates.  As with the zombie book, the idea is that by familiarizing individuals to the different theoretical approaches, they can recognize a realist or neoconservative argument when they hear it.  They should then be able to recall how well or how badly these approaches have done in the past, and think about the logical conclusions to each approach. 

Finally, these are American politicians, which means that they are genuinely interested in Americana and American history.  Books that can connect current foreign policy debates to past ones will resonate better. 

So, with that set-up, my three choices:

1)  Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence.  An excellent introduction to the myriad strains of thought that have permeated American foreign policy over the past two and a half centuries.  International relations theorists might quibble with Mead’s different intellectual traditions, but I suspect politicians will immediately "get" them. 

2)  David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (for Democrats); James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (for Republicans).  Americans have a long and bipartisan history of Mongolian clusterf**ks in foreign policy.  Each side should read about their greatest foreign policy mistake of the past century to appreciate that even the best and smartest advisors in the world will not necessarily translate into wise foreign policies. 

3)  Richard Neustadt and Earnest May, Thinking in Time.  Politicians like to claim that they don’t cotton to abstract academic theories of the world, that they rely on things like "common sense"  and "folk wisdom."  This is a horses**t answer that’s code for, "if I encounter a new situation, I’ll think about a historical parallel and use that to guide my thinking."  Neustadt and May’s book does an excellent job of delineating the various ways that the history can be abused in presidential decision-making. 

 Obviously, I’d want politicians to read more books after these three — but as a first set of foreign policy primers, I’m comfortable with these choices. 

If you want to hear more about this, go and listen to my bloggingheads exchange with NSN’s Heather Hurlburt on this very question. 

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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