OpenCanada's Summer Reads of 2013

Beach reads for IR nerds.
By: /
August 9, 2013
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Last summer, we encouraged readers to fill their beach bags with International Relations bestsellers ranging from Charles Kupchan to Rachel Maddow. This year, our summer reading recommendations are for all those IR news junkies who finally have some time to delve deeper into the biggest news stories of the past year. This list is for everyone who’s read countless articles about drones, but feels they still lack a clear view of where the technology is taking us; for those who have been tracking the post-2008 recovery, but still can’t decide whether we’re heading in the right direction; and for those who wake up, go online and wonder if today will be the day they get hacked.

Below, we’ve chosen six of the biggest themes in international relations from 2012-2013 and recommended a pair of books for each. Because it's summer – time to head to the beach (or if you're in the Maldives, wait for the beach to come to you) and read up on diplomacy, grand strategy, or cybersecurity.

America's changing role in the world

One of the most heated debates in U.S. foreign policy in the past year has been over what kind of military presence the United States should maintain in Afghanistan. This is a loaded question as there's little consensus as to what the war has actually accomplished, or if it's too early to tell. But there are  bigger questions underlying this debate, including whether and where the United States should be devoting resources to build or maintain security beyond America's borders.

Vali Nasr and Richard Hass both address these questions. Nasr builds a case for a different kind of international engagement by probing why the Obama Administration has suffered a series of failures and setbacks in the Middle East and South Asia. The reason its efforts were ineffectual, he says, is poor diplomacy that was conceived of and implemented by an inexperienced team. The consequences? A rudderless Middle East policy and a misguided “pivot” toward Asia.

While Nasr is sure that drawing away from the Middle East is dangerous and sells American power short, Richard Hass wants the United States to get its own house in order before seeking greater influence abroad. Hass argues that for America to effectively and sustainably project power beyond its own borders requires addressing domestic problems, including aging infrastructure and a lack of skilled workers.

America's strategic and military primacy has paid dividends to the U.S. and the international community, but it has also exacted tremendous costs. Read Nasr and Hass to understand how some of the best minds in American foreign policy think the United States should be allocating its resources.

 The post-Arab Spring Middle East

Part of what tends to get lost in the 24-hour news cycle coverage of political crises in the Middle East is how these situations developed – what was going on when the world wasn't watching, and how much more there is to life in these regions than violent headlines.

Lesch and Shadid help to fill this gap in different ways. A respected Middle East scholar and consultant, Lesch came to know President Bashar al-Assad better than most Westerners through a series of meetings between 2004 and 2009. His account of Assad’s transformation – from a man many hoped would push for democratic reforms into a brutal dictator in the wake of the Arab Spring – provides valuable background and perspective on the divisive leader at the heart of Syria’s civil war.

Lebanon is being dragged steadily deeper into the Syrian crisis. But Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone reminds us that, like its neighbours, there is much more to this country than its war-torn past. Shadid retraces his own past, returning to his ancestral home and town of Marjayoun. His elegant prose captures the tragedy but also the humanity of life in Lebanon. It also offers a window into the complex emotions people feel toward the places they are uprooted from, which is a prerequisite to grasping much of the commentary on crises in the Middle East. A deeply moving final work from an exceptional foreign correspondent.

New age warfare

The war in Syria may be many timezones away for most readers, but the types of technologies and tactics associated with conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia are now being deployed closer to home. If you’re reading this while flying to your next vacation destination, you are likely sharing the sky with pilotless planes. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), along with Special Forces and covert-ops, are increasingly the weapons of choice for the United States and a number of other countries. This shift has been fueling a non-stop conversation on the utility and ethics of unconventional warfare, but there have been few comprehensive treatments of its significance.

Scahill and Mazzetti are notable exceptions. Both are concerned by the direction in which U.S. counter-terrorism strategy seems to be heading and both zero in on the elite fighters employed by government agencies in covert operations. Scahill's in-person interviews with those targeted by special forces makes readers consider what it is actually like for communities to live in fear of sudden abduction or death from above. By giving a human face to those on the other side of secret night raids and held in black site prisons scattered around the globe, Scahill personalizes the often removed discussions about the long-term implications of making "the world into a battlefield".

Mazzetti's meticulous tracing of the off-the-grid operations carried out by the CIA and America’s special operations forces makes this a page-turner. This Pulitzer Prize winner demonstrates how traditional tactics such as clandestine spying network, proxy armies, and the dependence on mercurial dictators have been supplemented with drone warfare, and how the renewed emphasis on special operations is fueling another cycle of change in the U.S. security establishment, with potentially huge consequences for U.S. security and global stability.

The global economic recovery

For most countries, the financial crash of 2008 is receding into the realm of painful memory. But while the crisis-management mentality has diminished in North America somewhat, Europe's progress is keeping many awake at night. These two books deal respectively with economic crisis and what comes after.

Irwin's book is a fast-moving account of central banks and the 2008 financial crisis, told through “emails, phone calls and one fateful walk along the beach in Deauville, France.” Guiding readers from the birthplace of central banking in seventeenth century Stockholm to the age of Greenspan and beyond, this is the gripping story of three men – Ben Bernanke of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Mervyn King of the Bank of England, and Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank – and an economy on the brink. But it is not a simplistic heroic narrative; the limits on the ability of central bankers to affect change comes through as strongly as their individual personalities.

The best way to recover from an economic crisis has long been a subject of fierce debate. Out of the market crash of 1929 emerged two competing views on how to resolve the shocks felt by the economy, one held by John Maynard Keynes, the other by Freidrich Hayek. Wapshott deconstructs the relationship between Keynes, who believed governments had the duty to spend to stimulate the economy, and Freidrich Hayek, who was against government intervention altogether. Wapshott assesses how Keynesian economics came to dominate the debate for generations. Now, Keynesians are under increasing pressure from conservative economists and political leaders who would realize Hayek’s vision. Wapshott provides much-needed context for the debate over government intervention in the economy today.

Societal polarization

Most governments face the perennial policy dilemma of how to balance economic progress with environmental preservation. But this dilemma has grown particularly stark in the United States, where developing natural resources promises jobs, but also fossil fuel emissions. Most governments are also feeling increasing pressure to deliver economic prosperity to citizens who can see that some are living larger than ever, and that increasingly, to be middle class is to be second class.

Levi and Freeland wade into these debates, which despite the summer heat, are only growing intensity. In the United States, the future of America’s energy policy has pitted green energy proponents against fracking advocates. Rather than taking a side, Michael Levi explores the cases for and against fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. What he finds leads him to refute the notion that energy security is a zero-sum game, and to argue that old and new sources of energy have important roles to play in America’s energy future. It's a refreshing take on a hot-button issue that should provoke some soul searching in both camps.

The backdrop for the divisive debates over the future of energy in the U.S. and elsewhere is an increasingly divided global society, one where the wealthy exercise extraordinary influence over government policy on everything from resource development to financial regulation. Or, to be precise, the wealthiest 0.01% of the wealthy – the "plutocrats". These "globe-trotting superelites" scrutinized by Chrystia Freeland epitomize trends in global society with huge consequences for social stability and economic growth. And with social mobility declining, the concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer has no easy solutions.

The future of technology

Wikileaks, NSA, PRISM, XKeyscore – it's been a year of digital revelations, but are we any closer to figuring out where humanity's relationship with technology is headed? Do we really grasp the risks? Cohen and Schmitt take a brave stab at envisioning the future, while Deibert ventures into the darker corners of the digital age.

As our reliance on digital technology grows steadily, these two members of Google’s brain trust remind us of the need for a guiding human hand in the new digital age. Now is the time, say Schmidt and Cohen, to understand how states and corporations are using new technology to maximize their influence over citizens and consumers. This is a world where surveillance and data mining are ubiquitous and the power of technology to shape the outcome of wars, define diplomatic strategies, and catalyze protest movements is indisputable. It isn’t an easy place to navigate, which makes qualified guides like Cohen and Schmitt even more valuable.

Many dimensions of our new digital reality are less than benign. In Black Code, cyber expert Ron Deibert explores the sprawling development of cyberspace and reveals the powerful agents lurking in the shadows. From cyber criminal gangs such as Koobface to top-secret government programs like Stuxnet, many individuals and groups are successfully exploiting the Internet in ways that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. Some of these ways threaten one of the original purposes of the Internet – to  produce a global commons of shared knowledge. Black Code asks us to scrape the sand out of our ears and stop taking cyberspace for granted. If we are complacent about risks to privacy and security, and we continue to think of the Internet as “a mysterious unknown that just ‘works’,  it won't work openly and securely for long.