The Year in Review
The Books We Read in 2018
Some of Foreign Policy’s favorite reads of the year.
Foreign Policy staffers tore through stacks of books this year; many were featured in reviews in the magazine or online. But those selections couldn’t begin to cover all the wonderful, disturbing, or downright haunting titles that kept us up late turning pages. Here are some of our other favorites.
Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World
Throughout history, a handful of scrappy states turned themselves into true sea powers, using their control of sea and trade lanes to punch above their weight on the world stage. Andrew Lambert, a professor of naval history at King’s College London, explains just what made Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and Great Britain so special—and why it matters today. For Lambert, becoming a sea power isn’t a strategic choice but a cultural one. Sea powers are free, open, inclusive, and inquisitive. Traders and merchants are in charge. Continental powers, on the other hand, tend to be closed, restrictive, and servile. They’re command economies. That tension between “closed minds and open seas,” Lambert writes, “is the single greatest dynamic in human history.” —Keith Johnson
There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia
An authoritative and deeply reported account of the Colombian conflict, There Are No Dead Here has elements of a whodunnit—but it’s more about the how. Based on the author’s years of research for Human Rights Watch in Colombia, the book explains the way in which a staggering number of people were massacred, assassinated, and driven into exile. Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno weaves together the stories of a prosecutor, a human rights activist, and a journalist with a detailed account of the last three decades of conflict. Not only does the author skillfully describe a strategy of brutal paramilitary control, but the book also contributes to a broader understanding of the conflict in the post-peace agreement period. McFarland explains the “how” of years of violence and does something badly needed in telling the stories of those who sacrificed so much to fight it. —Elizabeth Miles
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
At a time when nationalistic and racist xenophobia is reawakening worldwide, Carl Zimmer provides an indispensable reality check on the fallacies of racial purity and eugenics. Zimmer, a science columnist for the New York Times, opens his exhaustive account with the strange and little-known history of Emma Wolverton, a girl who was deemed mentally defective at a young age and sent to a “training” school in New Jersey, where her family history became the basis for a series of studies led by American scientists and psychologists on the supposed inheritance of “feeblemindedness.” These American studies on the supposedly feebleminded and pseudonymous Kallikak family, Zimmer shows, helped shape Nazi Germany’s “racial hygiene” laws and in the process transform eugenics from a dubious science into a Holocaust. The tragedy, the author notes, is that the studies were all based on false conclusions. —Michael Hirsh
Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature
As Africa’s largest trading partner, China is investing aggressively across the continent through the Belt and Road Initiative. It’s also investing in Confucius Institutes, Chinese language instruction centers that have come under increased scrutiny in the United States but have flourished in Africa mostly unfettered. In 2018, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1986 classic Decolonising the Mind remains strikingly relevant. Ngugi, who was imprisoned over a satirical play he wrote in his native language, Kikuyu, argues that fully overcoming colonialism is only possible if Africans return to the indigenous languages they grew up speaking, rather than using languages such as English, French, and, now, Chinese to appeal to external benefactors. Just as there are risks for African nations in accepting Chinese money, Ngugi makes clear the risks of accepting Chinese linguistic soft power. —Nina Goldman
In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin
As a correspondent for the Sunday Times, Marie Colvin saw more conflict than even the most battle-hardened general. From the Lebanese Civil War to the Arab Spring, she elevated the stories of civilians caught between warring factions and the tectonic shifts of geopolitics. Author Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor of Britain’s Channel 4, documents a life lived In Extremis, capturing the burning sense of mission that fueled Colvin’s reporting but would ultimately lead to her death in Homs, Syria, in 2012. Based off of Colvin’s own diaries as well as over 100 interviews with friends and family, Hilsum’s book pays tribute to her friend’s unflinching journalism without glamorizing war reporting. She details Colvin’s love affairs and infamous London parties as well as her insecurities and her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol. Listen to Hilsum talk about her new book on the Dec. 7 episode of the Foreign Policy podcast, First Person. —Amy Mackinnon
This deftly woven tale of Ahmed, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee boy who lives in hiding from immigration authorities in Brussels and is desperate for family and education, opens at the dawn of the 2015 European refugee crisis. Marsh, a former colleague of mine from the New Republic, meshes the story of Ahmed with that of a young, transplanted American boy, himself trying desperately to integrate into a new culture and new language. Both stories are layered upon the (true) Holocaust history of the street these two boys find themselves living on, and the story of another boy, a Jewish one, on the run from the Nazis. Though fiction, it sets the very real problems and complexities of the refugee crisis in a human, accessible terms often lost in the vastness of the numbers. (Aimed at teens, this is pretty much a book for the family.) —Sarah Wildman
The Impostor: A True Story
The Imposter is the tale of Spain’s greatest liar: Enric Marco. Once the face of Spanish concentration camp survivors—a small group of former Republican fighters sent to camps during World War II—Marco was exposed as a fraud in 2005. Though he’d been in Germany during the war, he was there as a worker. Though he’d been in prison, it wasn’t for politics. Javier Cercas is a master of narrative nonfiction who works with the more fantastic elements of Spanish fascist history. In The Imposter, he walks us through his own search for Marco’s true history, and in so doing presents the conundrum of a country only just beginning to reconcile itself to a complicated past. —S.W.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Bad Blood is the stranger-than-fiction story of the meteoric rise and astounding fall of a Silicon Valley biotech start-up. Theranos, founded by the young Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, was billed as a the next revolution in medical technology. At one point, Holmes was plastered across the front pages of magazines branded as the next Steve Jobs, while her start-up was valued at nearly $5 billion. But one hitch: The whole thing was a con.
John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who helped uncover the scheme, writes the definitive account of Theranos’s downfall, detailing its motley crew of executives, legal knife fights, dramatic PR stunts, and dangerous skullduggery. Though it’s about Silicon Valley, the book offers a lot for foreign-policy wonks: The Theranos scandal roped in giants of Washington including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and future Defense Secretary James Mattis, all of whom were directly involved in the company. While Bad Blood is worth reading for its own merits—it’s a stunning feat of journalism that reads like a thriller—it also says a lot about Washington’s facile relationship with Silicon Valley. Most D.C. power brokers know next to nothing about science or technology but increasingly view Silicon Valley tech as a deus ex machina for some of the world’s most complicated challenges. Bad Blood offers a sobering warning of where that type of thinking can lead. —Robbie Gramer
The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World
Never Trumper Robert Kagan has written a dark, cautionary tale about the rights, privileges, and prosperity some have come to take for granted since the end of World War II and the threat that the U.S. retreat from its role as a global cop holds for the preservation of the liberal order. The postwar peace—which fostered greater trade, respect for human rights, and peaceful cooperation among states—is a historical aberration propped up by American power, the neoconservative historian argues. For Kagan, the liberal order is like a well-tended garden: artificial, and forever at risk of being overwhelmed by the choking weeds and vines of authoritarianism and power politics. But the United States, the gardener of the free world, has put down its trowel, opening the door for a new generation of illiberal leaders. Kagan’s book doesn’t directly address President Donald Trump’s brief, tumultuous tenure. But it is hard not to read this book as a scarcely veiled indictment of his inward-looking “America First” foreign policy. “Today there are signs all around us that the jungle is growing back,” Kagan writes. —Colum Lynch
Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
The late Richard Holbrooke was a man who seemed to live his life with an eye toward future biographies. This probably wasn’t the sort of book he had in mind. That’s not to say George Packer is dismissive of Holbrooke’s achievements, which range from serving as one of FP’s earliest editors to helping establish official relations between the United States and China in the 1970s to doing anything and everything necessary to persuade the opposing sides of the Bosnian war to sign the Dayton peace accords. But this is a portrait of the entirety of the man—not just his public life, but also his private motivations. Holbrooke was always vocal about the need for the United States to show ambition in using its power in service of its values. Packer shows that this idea was connected to, and ultimately inseparable from, Holbrooke’s lifelong ambition to win recognition for personally wielding power and shaping events, even at the expense of his relationships with friends, colleagues, and family. A nation’s interests are thus shown to be forged, for better and worse, in the crucible of its policymakers’ flaws and insecurities. —Cameron Abadi
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Whether Ben Macintyre’s double portrait of KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky and the American turncoat Aldrich Ames qualifies as the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, as his subtitle proclaims, is up for debate. What’s certain is that Macintyre’s latest book is a wonderfully told story of duplicity, intelligence tradecraft, and the psychology of treason. For decades, Gordievsky spied for Britain from within the heart of the KGB. In Macintyre’s telling, he betrayed his country in an act of political defiance to strike back at a state that he believed had become little more than a giant concentration camp. Treason was a moral imperative for Gordievsky. As Solzhenitsyn would write, Gordievsky would spy. The reports Gordievsky furnished to the British government played a pivotal role in the Cold War and helped convince Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Mikhail Gorbachev’s credentials as a reformer. Gordievsky’s daring espionage was ultimately undone by another traitor, Ames, the alcoholic CIA officer whose wounded ego and thirst for money drove him into the arms of the KGB. Macintyre considers these two men together, and it is in comparing the two that his narrative can slip into moralizing Gordeivsky’s greatness and Ames’s perfidy. But that does little to undermine what is ultimately a compulsive page-turner that takes the reader into the heart of one of the Cold War’s great spy dramas. —Elias Groll
The Origins of the Chinese Nation: Song China and the Forging of an East Asian World Order
One of the best books for understanding Chinese nationalism today is set a thousand years ago. In the 11th century, the Southern Song Dynasty struggled with being only one of several major powers in East Asia. For a state that believed itself to be the natural hegemon, adjusting to the existence of others—especially the Northern Liao, who occupied key territories of the former “Chinese” empires—was a challenge. But it was also a chance for a cosmopolitan and widely traveled intelligentsia to begin to define themselves as something much closer to the modern idea of the nation than to the empires of the past. Nicolas Tackett traces the experiences and interchanges between the Song and others, and he shows a prickly, revanchist power trying to adjust to the realities of other countries. At a time when the Chinese Communist Party—itself a foreign import—is attempting to wipe out the complexities and nuances of China’s long, multicultural history, Tackett’s book is a reminder of just how fascinating and messy the story of the Chinese nation actually is. —James Palmer
The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon
This enchanting novel from an author who has worked in the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.K. Parliament, and in think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic perfectly captures what it is like to navigate the halls of the Pentagon. Part Devil Wears Prada, part serious critique of a dysfunctional military bureaucracy, The Heart of War follows Dr. Heather Reilly, an anti-war Ph.D. who moves from San Diego to Washington to work on Afghanistan policy and ends up inexplicably asked to cobble together a plan to use Moldova to check Russian influence. While a work of fiction, McInnis’s novel provides unique insight into the petty power struggles, bureaucratic inefficiency, and behind-the-scenes incompetence that characterize American foreign policy. —J.P.
Exit West and Red Birds
Sometimes fiction offers the truest portrait of contemporary foreign-policy failures. Two new novels by acclaimed Pakistani writers deal with the failures of wealthy nations to address the refugee crisis and bring stability to the nations they bomb. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West imagines a world where refugees flee their war-torn homelands through randomly appearing doors. Those portals transport them from civil war to Greek islands and onward to Western capitals, where their presence provokes nativist resentment and violent backlash but also, at times, accommodation and coexistence in a landscape permanently altered by the mass movement of people. Hamid’s imagined future is often uncomfortably close to contemporary reality.
Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds is a biting satire that mocks America’s wars and the reconstruction economies that have arisen in their wake, replete with airdropped aid and studies of the “young Muslim mind.” Tackling drone strikes and black sites through dry humor and an eye for the absurd, Hanif tells the story of the Afghanistan War (or one very similar to it) through the eyes of a downed fighter pilot, an entrepreneurial 15-year-old refugee, and a dog. —Sasha Polakow-Suransky
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Francis Fukuyama’s Identity seeks to explain the tumultuous political landscape of recent years through the lens of group grievance and the perception of relative deprivation. Linking Trump voters, Brexit enthusiasts, and those voting for populist parties in Europe, Fukuyama argues that many voters are willing to sacrifice political stability and ignore policies that do them few economic favors in order to back strident and politically incorrect leaders vowing to defend their culture and prioritize them over immigrants and minorities to whom they fear they are losing ground. The political and economic comforts of “the end of history”—the idea for which Fukuyama is best known—are no match for offended dignity, it turns out. Revived nationalism and the resurgence of white identity politics have been the results. —S.P.S.