top international relations books for aspring politicians

Monday, January 25, 2016

"My top five international relations books for the next president" By Daniel W. Drezner January 25 at 8:28 AM

1)  “The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War.” Yes, it’s a classic, and yes, it’s cliched to bring it up, but it doesn’t matter. Simply put, it’s the ur-text of international relations. Dani Rodrik has argued recently that economics is all about producing an array of models and then figuring out which model applies which situation. One could argue that an awful lot of the models in international relations are contained in Thucydides’ history. There hasn’t been a time in the post-1945 era when something from it doesn’t seem relevant to American foreign policy. For 2017, I’d suggest that the incoming president to pay close attention to the erosion in Athenian democracy, and Greek civil society, over the course of the long war.

2)  E.H. Carr, “The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939.” Also a classic, though often a misread one. Carr’s discussion of utopian and realist modes of thinking about the world are very useful in contemplating about how to navigate world politics — as well as parsing out presidential rhetoric. Too often, readers of Carr believe that he dismissed utopian thinking entirely, but it’s more that at the time Carr was writing, the world seemed to be suffering from to much utopianism and too little realism. Incoming presidents almost always are too utopian in their thinking, however, so this is a useful check against that bias.

3)  Scott Sagan, “The Limits of Safety.” The first two books on this list deal with great power politics; time to drill down a bit. Sagan took Charles Perrow’s theory of “normal accidents” and applied it to command and control of U.S. nuclear weapons.  Perrow’s book is a great read, but the results Sagan finds of near-nuclear accidents is frightening beyond words. This appears to be a moment when the public seems pretty damn fearful. The next president should read this to recognize the conditions under which additional security precautions can make America less safe.

4)  Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. There seems to be a lot of state failure going on around the world right now. Why is that? This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it has a very big part of the answer. There also are a lot of revanchist states that seem concern Americans. If Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis is true, then the next president should be far more concerned about, say, a weak China rather than a strong one.

5) Peter Trubowitz, “Politics and Strategy:  Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft.” What latitude will the next president have to launch an ambitious grand strategy? Trubowitz’s book offers some evidence for the conditions under which a president can choose to invest resources into foreign policy and the conditions under which such a course of action will not be on the table. Based on current attitudes about defense spending, the next president will likely face fewer constraints on this front than Barack Obama.

Theories of International Politics and Zombies Paperback – January 23, 2011
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My three must-read U.S. foreign policy books for aspring politicians

MAY 3, 2011

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.


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I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. - Socrates, Memorabilia
What we maintain is that in none of the problems of life can men afford to lose sight of the storehouse bequeathed to them by the ancients. In the complexus of everything which differentiates man from the brute creation, the voice of antiquity must be heard...

-H. Browne, quoted in "Classics and Citizenship" The Classical Quarterly, 1920