FP’s Favorite Reads of 2011

23 great books about the world, chosen by Foreign Policy's editors and bloggers.


China, the United States, and Global Order, by Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter

China, the United States, and Global Order, by Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter

One does not have to dig very deep into foreign-policy punditry to find the belief that the question of the next decade is how world order will adapt to a waxing China and a waning United States. Will China embrace, reject, or simply ignore the set of pre-existing global norms? Will the United States continue to assert its privilege in setting global norms, or will it retreat into unilateralism? Beyond the punditry, very few scholars have bothered to look systematically at how both of these countries interact with global governance norms and structures. Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter tackle the general question of Sino-American interactions with global rules and norms in a rigorous and informative manner, discussing issues as diverse as nonproliferation and financial regulation with a degree of empirical sophistication that borders on the astonishing. Foot and Walter have produced a must-read for anyone interested in the future of global governance. —Daniel W. Drezner, blogger


Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, by James Peck

It’s commonplace to contrast the idealistic pursuit of human rights with the supposedly amoral conduct of realpolitik. But in this provocative and challenging book, James Peck shows how U.S. leaders from both parties have used the rhetoric and institutions of human rights as just another tool of power politics, often to the detriment of human rights itself. Although his account is occasionally a bit over the top, it is a valuable corrective to anyone who thinks U.S. foreign policy is primarily driven by universal moral principles. This book didn’t change my basic worldview, perhaps, but it certainly opened my eyes. —Stephen M. Walt, blogger


Even the Rain

The best “book” for me this year was actually a film, Even the Rain. I began it skeptically, thinking it was going to be just another Euro-leftist take on the Americas. But it proved to be far tougher-minded than I expected. The best real book I read this year was Ha Jin’s War Trash (2004), which I wrote about on my blog. —Thomas E. Ricks, blogger





Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis

I knew Michael Lewis once. It was long ago. He had just written a book called Liar’s Poker that revealed with humor and slap-in-the-face insight the deep cultural flaws in Wall Street that, as it turned out, would haunt our generation. He was a charming, funny, and very smart guy, and I hired him to go to the IMF/World Bank meeting and write a series of articles about bankers misbehaving in and around Bangkok, for a publication I edited back then. Suffice it to say he had more material than he knew what to do with. Since then, of course, he has become a celebrated author, seemingly incapable of writing about anything without infusing it with life and at the same time allowing us to look deep beneath the surface of the core narrative of his story. The Blind Side may have been the least of his books despite its fame — and it was very good. Moneyball should be required reading for anyone interested in business of any type. It’s really not about baseball, but creativity. The Big Short is still probably the best book about America’s 2008-2009 financial crisis. And now comes Boomerang. It seems not to have gotten the play of past books, but perhaps that’s because it’s a little too cosmopolitan for many Americans, much of it taking place in Europe. But it ends in the United States, and the conclusions he draws — about the factors that have fueled the Eurocrisis and may be dragging the United States down — are so trenchant that you may want to enjoy this book with a bottle of your favorite single-malt or beer. Your alcohol of choice. Just avoid sharp implements and operating heavy machinery afterward because by the time you’re done trekking with him from the crisis zones of the continent (and Iceland) to the Lalaland economic lunacy and calamity of California, you will be deeply unsettled (or possibly hiding under your bed). Still, if it’s your bedtime book, that’s not entirely inconvenient — and you should know these things and be thankful that a writer as lucid and intelligent as Michael Lewis is out there producing books like this one. —David J. Rothkopf, blogger

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal

This is quite simply a terrific and unusual book: part family memoir, part art history, part sprawling drama of 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Edmund de Waal tells the story of the Ephrussi family’s epic rise and fall over five generations — from obscurity as grain merchants in Odessa to wealth on par with the Rothschilds, to whom they were often compared, and then on to the tragedy of the Nazis. Precious little survives the wreckage but a collection of Japanese carved figures known as netsuke, the story of which provides de Waal a unique way back into his family’s past. De Waal (whose brother Tom is an accomplished journalist, author, and expert on the Caucasus, as well as an FP contributor) is a potter by profession, but he’s clearly a writer in spirit. —Susan B. Glasser, editor in chief

The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era, by Michael Mandelbaum

Michael Mandelbaum is surely the only theorist of international relations to have identified the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 as a seminal event in foreign as well as domestic policy. His fundamental insight is that foreign policy is not so much something you choose as something you buy; he argues that the “expansive American foreign policy” of the post-World War II era has now come to an end. Mandelbaum thinks this is a good thing, since a chastened America will stop trying to reshape the world and return to old-fashioned great-power politics, which he very much prefers. I suspect he’s right, though I’d be less pleased by the outcome. —James Traub, columnist


Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

At the risk of being unoriginal (given it won the Financial Times Business Book of the Year accolade), I’d pick Poor Economics. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo wrote a great cover article for FP based on one small part of their excellent book, which spans their pioneering work in testing development interventions across health, education, finance, politics, and more. If you want to understand more about people living on a dollar a day and how to improve the quality of their lives, this is a brilliant, accessible place to start. —Charles Kenny, columnist




To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild

I’ve spent much of my life reading countless tomes dedicated to comprehending the fierce unknowableness of war. Adam Hochschild’s remarkable To End All Wars, which looks anew at World War I from a British perspective, doesn’t necessarily provide answers to my fog of understanding; rather, it offers a perspective on the Great War, and all wars, that is uniquely devastating. Hochschild’s book tells a story rarely chronicled in books of military history — namely of those on the home front who were fierce and courageous oppositionists. This in itself is a signal achievement. But the power in Hochschild’s narrative comes in the juxtaposition of that hopeful story with the insanity of the Western Front: the pointless offensives, the perverse frustrations of British generals that combat deaths were not higher, the barely remembered suicidal engagements that left tens of thousands dead. It is enough to bring a reader to tears. To End All Wars is a compelling reminder that as the world descended into madness from 1914 to 1918, there were those who had not taken the plunge — and yet were unheeded. There were no doubt better books written this year about the art of war; it’s hard to imagine any that captured so effectively its singular inhumanity. —Michael A. Cohen, columnist

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, by Eli Pariser

Surprisingly, the most fascinating book I read this year was about a technology topic I know little about: data. Vast streams of data. In Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble, he outlines how the customization of information through the Internet informs our relationship with the world around us. As search engines look for organizing principles to make information more appealing to consumers (and, thus, more appealing to advertisers), personalization is the newest frontier. One reader’s digital trash is another reader’s treasure: Search engines like those of Google and Facebook show results based on your past predilections, as proven through your search history, location, and all the other information they have at their disposal. Fine for consumers, bad for citizens, as we stop receiving information that runs counter to our thinking. I was drawn to the political implications, where this trend could prove much more of a game changer than the communication capacities of social media credited with accelerating the Arab Spring. If the Internet becomes hopelessly customized with my preferences, here’s to hoping it at least sends more books like The Filter Bubble my way. —Ian Bremmer, blogger

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite

Rodric Braithwaite brings the talents of a scholar, diplomat, and writer to the agony of the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan. The Afgantsy — a term for the 620,000 Soviet troops who served in Afghanistan — were there nine years, and Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, examines how the war began, how it was fought, and how it ended. His narrative is understated but powerful, resting on a wide range of Russian sources, including interviews with veterans and many documents. He concludes the war was a tragic failure that undermined the confidence of Soviet people in their government and became one of many forces that caused the Soviet Union to implode. In the final withdrawal in February 1989, a journalist posed a question that haunted the entire war: “Why did we go in?” —David E. Hoffman, blogger


The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, by Evgeny Morozov

I read this book while teaching a class on the political impact of new information technologies at the University of Michigan, which fortuitously coincided with the Arab Spring. A onetime political activist in Belarus and FP contributing editor, Evgeny Morozov warns that the Internet revolution is a double-edged sword. Authoritarian rulers can make use of social media, such as YouTube and Facebook, to identify and crack down on dissent, and create a “Big Brother” society. I think he overstates the case, but his book is an important antidote to cyberutopians led by Clay Shirky, who view the Internet as virtually synonymous with democracy, freedom, and apple pie. It is more complicated than that, as Morozov makes clear. As we saw in China and parts of the Arab world, tanks can usually defeat tweets, as long as a ruler is determined enough and has his regime behind him. As a foreign-policy tool, the Internet can come back to bite great powers like the United States, as the WikiLeaks story made abundantly clear. —Michael Dobbs, blogger


George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis

This long-anticipated biography of one of American diplomacy’s most enigmatic figures was worth the wait. With a sympathetic yet critical eye, John Lewis Gaddis traces the interior world of Kennan’s highly original mind amid the exterior world of the 20th century’s many convulsions. Along the way, Gaddis illustrates both the continuities and inconsistencies of Kennan’s foreign-policy views and affirms Kennan’s standing as the intellectual father of containment, even as he shows the ultimate inadequacy of Kennan’s understanding of America and its role in the world. —Will Inboden, blogger



The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

This work on the rediscovery of Lucretius by Poggio might strike some as decidedly un-foreign policy-like. I disagree. By reminding us in a novel thesis in his gorgeous prose of the truism that there is nothing new under the sun — meaning that the Romans understood the essence of Darwin and Einstein, not to mention Nassim Taleb, two millennia ago — this book drives us to question our most fundamental presumptions of all kinds, including those vexing foreign affairs. —Steve LeVine, blogger





The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics, by Kathryn Sikkink

The Justice Cascade is a very important contribution to the conversation about justice and international relations. It blends accounts of some key moments in the history of human rights trials with an empirical examination of the effects of these prosecutions. Kathryn Sikkink presents important evidence that justice may have a real deterrent impact. —David Bosco, blogger






Yalta: The Price of Peace, by S.M. Plokhy

This one actually came out in 2010, but I didn’t get around to it until this year. S.M. Plokhy doesn’t quite exonerate FDR and Churchill’s controversial concessions to Stalin at Yalta, but the book is a valuable study of politicians struggling to eke out the best compromise possible under highly constrained political realities. Beyond that, it’s a riveting account of three of the pivotal political figures of the 20th century — all nearing the end of their political careers and, in Roosevelt’s case, his life — working to cement their own legacies and fundamentally transforming world history in the process. Plokhy does a particularly great job of conveying Stalin’s skills at personal diplomacy. (A close runner-up for me would be James Glieck’s The Information, a freewheeling and eccentric history of the birth of the information age, which puts the latest digital advances in the context of humanity’s evolving understanding of the nature of data as a commodity.) —Joshua E. Keating, associate editor

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

In a year of so much history, pick up a book published in 1968. Joan Didion’s essays explore the appeal of John Wayne, the twilight of the hippie movement, the U.S. Communist Party — all the while treating her subjects with nuance and her readers like adults, refusing to fall into the easy stereotypes of the time. And, of course, there’s the prose. “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” her essay on leaving New York City begins. “I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.” The RSS entries and tweets may flash by quickly, but there are still some things that are worth reading slowly. —David Kenner, associate editor


Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, by Conor Grennan

Conor Grennan, a real-life hero, initially went to war-wracked Nepal to volunteer at an orphanage. He discovered, however, that many of the kids who won his heart weren’t orphans; rather, they had been separated from their parents by con artists. The swindlers had extracted huge sums of money from the kids’ parents with the promise that the girls and boys would be taken somewhere safe and stable, away from the violence. Instead the kids were sold into slavery and eventually ended up at the orphanage. At the end of his volunteer stint, Conor realizes he can’t abandon these kids. He begins a risky, dangerous mission to reunite them with their parents, trekking over rough, unforgiving terrain to the remotest parts of Nepal. This book is cute kids, thrilling adventure, making a difference — and romance — all rolled into one. —Preeti Aroon, copy chief

The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, May-October 1940, by James Holland

Dull title, engrossing book. We’re accustomed to thinking of “The Battle of Britain” as a bunch of dogfights. James Holland gives us a wider view that includes the stunning German victories in the Low Countries and France in May and June of 1940, the evacuation of British troops from the continent, and the war at sea. Even better, he manages to fuse rich personal accounts with smart analysis of technology, doctrine, and logistics. Probably the best account of this phase of the war you’ll ever read. —Christian Caryl, contributing editor


Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, by Jianying Zha

In 2005, feisty Chinese writer Jianying Zha led Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker‘s architecture critic, on his first tour of Beijing. “He looked very intently for several days, and then one day told me that Beijing reminded him of Houston. It broke my heart.” So Zha writes in the introduction to Tide Players. The lively book is organized around profiles of six Chinese entrepreneurs and intellectuals striving to “surf the currents” of a fast-changing nation. Most of them live in Beijing. Fortunately, as Zha’s witty portraits reveal, the character of the city is determined far more by its people than its buildings, and Beijing in 2011 most certainly is not Houston. What the city and the country will look like in, say, 2031, however, is up for debate. —Christina Larson, contributing editor

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

I can’t say this novel helped me understand Spain’s deficit woes or electoral politics, but as a thoughtful and often funny account of a confused American living in Madrid, it was well worth its short, mostly plotless 180 pages. Aside from drinking and smoking, the narrator, a young American poet on a fellowship in Spain, spends his days thinking about art, literature, women — and the inadequacy he feels in each of these areas in a country where he only haltingly speaks the language. Most memorably, he takes to the streets just after the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, stricken by the horror of the attacks but feeling out of place amid the politicized protests that follow. He is left wondering what purpose reading and writing literature serve in historical moments and why he should write at all. Lucky for us, Lerner has found reason enough to turn out a compelling book of his own. —Margaret Slattery, assistant managing editor

Bonus Reads

FP‘s own family and friends have turned out a number of great reads this year: Charles Kenny, our weekly “Optimist” columnist, produced Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding to much deserved acclaim in 2011; he even has Bill Gates plugging him these days. FP blogger Dan Drezner’s book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, which started life as a memorable blog post on ForeignPolicy.com, is both a terrific primer on competing schools of thought in international relations and a brilliant send-up of the turgid prose and ponderous clichés that unfortunately dominate all too much writing about foreign affairs. And Peter Bergen, editor of the AfPak Channel as well as a great partner of ours at the New America Foundation, has written The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda, a must-read chronicle of a decade of war. —Susan B. Glasser

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