Each year CFR.org Editor-in-Chief Bob McMahon and I take a break from the news on The world next week to record a special episode of our summer reading recommendations. This episode is now live. This year, our colleague Carla Anne Robbins returned to the podcast to share some of her choices. Carla is Associate Principal Researcher at CFR and Head of the Marxe Faculty of the MA program in International Affairs and Clinical Professor of National Security Studies at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College. Carla knows a thing or two about good writing. Prior to joining the Board, she was Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Editorial Page of the New York Times and before that, the chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street newspaper. We’ve all agreed to share a foreign policy book that we think everyone should read and a lighter choice that we think will be good to fill those long summer days.
Foreign policy readings
Carla kicked off by recommending The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, by Zachary Carter. Keynes is perhaps the most important economist who ever lived. He not only wrote one of the defining books on economics – as the term “Keynesianism” implies – he helped shape British economic policy for decades. Carter tells the life story of Keynes in a way that appeals not only to academic economists. Indeed, Carla said The price of peace is probably the closest to a “beach book” that a history of economics can get. By the way, Carla had planned to suggest Jill Lepore’s excellent story, These Truths: A History of the United States. But that turned out to be one of my recommendations for last summer’s special episode.
History and theory of international relations
Council of Foreign Relations Books
Bob recommended Missionaries, by Phil Klay. The novel is set in Colombia in the months leading up to the country’s 2016 vote on the landmark peace deal aimed at settling the half-century conflict between the government and Marxist FARC guerrillas. Missionaries follows the crossed lives of four characters – a U.S. Army Special Forces medic, a foreign correspondent, a paramilitary veteran, and a Colombian lieutenant colonel – to explore the effects of U.S. policy in Colombia and the human cost of modern warfare. Bob said the novel gave him a better understanding of a civil war he didn’t know much about. Bob’s reading choice prompted Carla to recommend The kings of cocaine, which her husband Guy Gugliotta co-wrote with Jeff Leen. It traces the rise of the brutal and lucrative Colombian drug cartel in Medellín in the 1980s.
I went with Nicole Perlroth’s new book, Here’s how they tell me the world is ending: the cyber arms race. Given the deeply polarized state of American politics at the moment, I intended to recommend a book on the founding of America. I’ve read a lot lately about the early years of the American republic, including Pauline Maier’s book Ratification: the people debate the Constitution and Jack Rakove Original meanings: politics and ideas and constitution making. But because Bob and I so often discuss political divisions over The world next week and because ransomware attacks like the Colonial Pipeline hack have dominated the news over the past month, I went with This is how they tell me the end of the world. Perlroth, which covers cyber issues for the New York Times, is based on more than three hundred interviews she conducted over seven years with government officials, hackers, computer scientists, mercenaries, etc. Critics applauded This is how they tell me the world ends as “perhaps the most important book of the year”.
“Lighter” summer readings
Carla can’t wait to discover Mario Conde’s detective novels by Cuban author Leonardo Padura. Padura recently published the ninth book of the detective novel, the Time transparency. Carla, who reported in Cuba at the end of the Cold War, decided to start the series after watching the TV adaptation of the first four books, which she said accurately portrayed Cuban life and society. (The series sadly left Netflix last year.) She added that her husband is a “big fan” of Padura’s more literary works like The man who loved dogs, a novel about the assassination of Leon Trotsky. Carla noted that it is remarkable that the Cuban government allows Padura to continue writing even if it does not always paint the Cuban revolution in a positive light.
Bob broke form by offering two recommendations. Her first was the debut novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Plague Romance, which was released in 2002. It follows a cleaning lady who lives in a remote 17th-century English village affected by the bubonic plague. The epidemic forces the villagers to struggle with faith, science and human relations. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Bob’s second recommendation was a volume of essays by Czech playwright Vaclav Havel titled, Live in the truth. The “Power of the Helpless” essay in particular stuck with Bob. Havel describes how authoritarian regimes use their control over information to gain and retain power. Ultimately, however, the power rests with the people to shake off the “hypnotic charm” of a stable life that regimes often promise in times of crisis. Some food for thought in our current era of nationalist populism and democratic regression.
With Bob having broken the format, I followed suit. A long-standing rule of our summer reading episodes is not to recommend books that our colleagues have written. This prohibition does not extend to members of their families. So my first recommendation was Clare Sestanovich’s short story collection, Objects of desire, which Knopf is expected to release at the end of the month. If the name sounds familiar to you, it might be because Clare’s father is her senior colleague Steve Sestanovich, a frequent guest of The President’s Inbox. Clare writes beautifully and powerfully, as you can see from the two short stories she posted in The New Yorker. (You can read them here and here.) With my second recommendation, I went with John McWhorter’s new book, Nine wicked words: English in the gutter: then, now and forever. My shelves are full of books like Lynne Truss’s Eat, push and leave, by Bill Bryson The mother tongue, Steven Pinker Sense of style, and the William Strunk Jr. Style elements which discuss the art of writing and the evolution of the English language. So I was delighted to add McWhorter’s book on blasphemy to my collection. I am at the third stage and I can say that it is funny, informative and stimulating. I’ll tell you more, but damn it, this is a family blog.
History and theory of international relations
Council of Foreign Relations Books
To be fair to Carla, I invited her to come up with a second “lighter” recommendation. She said she plans to revisit John le Carré’s terrific George Smiley spy series, often referred to as the “Karla Trilogy,” this summer. Le Carré, who died last year, used his novels to expose the sordid side of espionage. The BBC series with Alec Guinness is also worth a visit. Carla said she is envious when she meets people who haven’t read the Karla Trilogy yet because they are going to experience it for the first time. As someone who skipped school as a teenager to read all three books, I totally agree.
Other books to read
The world next weekThe rule of not recommending the books our colleagues at CFR write does not extend to The water’s edge. So if you want to learn more about foreign policy, check out these recent books from my colleagues – or in two cases due to the recruitment efforts of the Biden administration, former colleagues:
- Stephen Biddle, Non-state warfare: the military methods of guerrillas, warlords and militias.
- John Campbell, Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World.
- Philip H. Gordon, Losing the Long End: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.
- Yanzhong Huang, Toxic policy: the environmental health crisis in China and its challenge for the Chinese state.
- Charles A. Kupchan, Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Protect itself from the World.
- Gayle Lemmon Tzemach, Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage and Justice.
- Mira Rapp Hooper, An Open World: How America Can Win the Order of the 21st Century Contest, co-written with Rebecca Lissner.
- Ray Takeyh, The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.
If you don’t have a hard copy of Richard N. Haass’s excellent foreign policy handbook, The world: a brief introduction, it is now out in paperback.
And if you haven’t already, you should consider placing an advance order for Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone’s. Awakening: #MeToo and the global struggle for human rights. It’s a great book. And it’s not just me saying it. Editors Weekly calls it “a revealing world tour of women’s activism in the wake of the # MeToo movement… Readers will be galvanized by these detailed portraits of bravery, creativity and perseverance in the fight for women’s rights.” And Kirkus Reviews says it is “an inspiring glimpse into the burgeoning women’s movements … A fresh perspective on the ongoing challenges in women’s lives.”
If you want even more summer entertainment suggestions, check out our list of recommendations for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Margaret Gach helped prepare for this post.