OpenCanada’s Summer Reads of 2014

Beach reads for IR nerds.
By: /
July 14, 2014
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Ah summer, when the days are long and lazy and the beach and cottage invite. What better time is there to sit back and enjoy an important tome on international relations? To help fill out your reading list, OpenCanada has onceagain compiled a selection of 10 worthy works from the past year. And should you prefer lighter fare for your beach reading, not to worry, this list will still be there in the more studious days of September.

Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods

Eric Helleiner

Eric Helleiner, one of Canada’s most internationally renowned international political economists, has produced a tour de force with Forgotten Foundations. Through extensive archival research, he casts the development of the international economic system in a new light. Demonstrating that the original Bretton Woods architects anticipated many of today’s geo-political forces and struggles, Helleiner reveals that the original negotiations for the post-war international system included development goals and attention to the needs of the global south.

Traditionally, study of the post-war history of international trade and finance regimes has taken place predominantly through the lens of the Anglo-American relationship, focusing on the Bretton Woods institutions and their relevance or adaptability to changing global geopolitical circumstances. In this context, Helleiner’s most recent book is a revelation, one that explains the great frustrations that the developing world has experienced with the unfolding of the international economic system since the Second World War, the root of the calls for a New International Economic Order, and anticipation of the emergence or an organization such as the G20.

Meticulously researched, yet accessible to the non-historian, Helleiner’s book will guide students of IPE to understand history and its current consequences differently. No doubt, this reinterpretation of history will be challenging to those familiar with the history of the Bretton Woods system, but deserves applause and attention as we anticipate the development of new ideas and enthusiasm for development work from a generation that will understand history differently. It’s a definite ‘must read’!

Days of Fire

Peter Baker

Days of Fire provides the most cogently investigated account of George W. Bush’s administration up to now. Its consideration of the trials and tribulations of White House staffers as well as deeper explanations of the events and scandals that would shape the administration provide perspective into the powerbrokers both within and outside the executive branch.

Baker focuses on the relationship between Vice President Dick Cheney and the President George W. Bush from their early careers to their days in office as they react to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, a re-election campaign, nascent efforts to bolster the U.S. economy in 2008, and domestic political maneuvering related to gay marriage, education, and foreign aid. The book tracks the evolution of their relationship, from the privileged role Cheney played early in Bush’s first term to their divergence in the second term with regard to national security issues—particularly around Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

As Jonathan Karl of the Wall Street Journalwrites in his review, the book is reminiscent of Robert Caro’s investigation of the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy in The Passage of Power and does well to lay out the intricacies of the relationship and the competition between players in the Republican Party.

For those interested in making sense of the policy conversation and prerogatives of the early 21st century, this book is a revealing investigation.

Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton

While Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices may have recently fallen off of its perch as #1 on The New York Times best-seller list, it remains the presumed launching point for a run for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency in 2016. The book itself details her four years as U.S. Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012 adding to the material of her memoir, Living History, released in 2003.

With chapters devoted to the State Department’s role in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the book provides a revealing account of both the inner workings of the State Department and her philosophical predilection for hawkish responses to threats to U.S. national security.

Prior to its publication John Cassidy wrote for The New Yorker, that the book “seems likely to portray her as a high-minded but tough interventionist, who was more willing than the White House to exert American military power.” As it turns out, Cassidy is mostly right. No doubt attempting to overcome questions surrounding her response to the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Clinton insists that she and her staff acted on the intelligence at the time and throughout her tenure at State, noting that, “all of us face hard choices in our lives. Life is about making such choices. Our choices and how we handle them shape the people we become.”

In the coming year, the American population will likely have to make its own hard choice regarding Hillary Clinton’s political future. This book is worth a read on that basis alone.

Flash Boys

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys provides the authoritative account of a particularly troubling aspect of contemporary financial markets: high frequency trading. The question Lewis is asking is whether today’s financial markets are a rigged game.

In typical Lewis fashion, he finds a compelling story within an otherwise complex and technical topic. His protagonist here is Brad Katsuyama, a stock-trader at the Royal Bank of Canada, who discovered that fiber optic cables linking supercomputers to brokers allowed high-frequency traders to under-sell others for a profit. Katsuyama has gone on to establish IEX, a purportedly transparent exchange in which all traders receive information at the same time.

Lewis is certainly a fan of this market-based solution and the book strikes a derisory tone with regard to regulators who failed to get out in front of the problem in the first place. With that said, regulators, including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), have said that they have both ongoing and new investigations of practices associated with high frequency trading and are examining the risks of these practices.

In light of the previous failures to oversee and manage financial markets, this book is a revealing and rather entertaining account of a cutting-edge problem for policymakers around the world that attempt to rein in dangerous uses of capital and market mechanisms that are unfair.

Quest for Security

Joseph E. Stiglitz and Mary Kaldor

This edited volume from two of the heavyweights in international relations scholarship is a collection of essays detailing the economic, environmental, and political crises of the 21st century.

The basic argument of the book laid out in the first chapter is that the world is undergoing a period of transition into an era of growing insecurity. But instead of blaming globalization or geopolitics in isolation, the authors ask the compelling question of how a globalized world with an ailing global governance architecture can achieve security without countries resorting to isolationism. Each of the contributors go on to detail the importance and outputs of social protection and the different political mechanisms by which human security and well-ordered societies can be created through the lens of their respective field of expertise.

The book as a whole presents a counterargument to those who argue that states now need to have higher walls or exert their military prowess around the world. Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the book privileges the city as the venue in which questions of human security and economic development are most likely to occur in the 21st century, where a higher and higher proportion of the global population now lives.

More than just a textbook, Stiglitz and Kaldor have put together an approachable work that describes some of our world’s most pressing challenges while also offering the frameworks with which solutions might be found.

Cybersecurity and Cyberwar

Peter W. Singer and Allan Friedman

Peter W. Singer and Allan Friedman’s Cybersecurity and Cyberwar is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand the history, development, and future of the Internet—the technology that has developed into the ubiquitous institution of the 21st century.

Its three sections—“How it All Works,” “Why it Matters,” and “What Can We Do?”—explore the politics of the web and provide an excellent understanding of “cybersecurity” through examples ranging from denial of service attacks, “hacktivism,” malware, financial fraud, securing critical infrastructure from utilities to water resource management systems, and corporate espionage. In the final section, the authors suggest a framework for creating appropriate government mechanisms to overcome challenges by focusing on the concept of “resilience” rather than being forced into reactionary fixes to myriad problems associated with our use of technology.

Singer and Friedman have likely created the formative book on the subject of Internet governance and given the sustained debates over how best to govern the use of the Web it will likely play a large role in the controversies and conflicts to come. As Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, notes, “In our digital age, the issues of cybersecurity are no longer just for the technology crowd; they matter to us all. Whether you work in business or politics, the military or the media—or are simply an ordinary citizen—this is an essential read.”

Still Ours to Lead

Bruce Jones

In his new book, Bruce Jones (a contributor to OpenCanada) argues that the United States still leads the world and that it can continue to do so as long as it makes an effort to do so effectively. This message flies in the face of the growing consensus that the United States’ influence has been dwindling as other powers grow in influence.

Importantly, Jones’ narrative provides a balanced view of American power and, as Anne Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation points out, provides a blueprint for the United States to embark upon a future of “coalitional diplomacy to address problems from climate change to maritime security.” In these circumstances, the reality of rising powers is tempered by the centrality of the U.S. polity and economy to global dynamics.

And even while exploring this fairly controversial and weighty topic, he does so in a conversational tone. As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, “Jones’ style is lighter and informal. He weaves data together with illustrative anecdotes and bits of humor to make his point. In short, it’s a lively conversation with an engaging and intelligent friend over drinks.”

Exactly what we like in a summer read.

After the Music Stopped

Alan S. Blinder

Perhaps the best account and investigation of the 2008 financial crisis, Alan S. Blinder’s After the Music Stopped pulls few punches. It castigates the Bush and Obama administrations for failing to arrest the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and for failing to communicate a narrative of why the crisis occurred or what they were willing to do to stop it.

Blinder’s credentials to examine the policy responses to the crisis are second to none having previously served as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors while warning that the financial markets were in danger of forming a bubble as early as the late 1990s.

Blinder, and the book by extension, subscribes to the belief that the crisis was the result of a “perfect storm” with a bubble in the housing market, the creation of financial products that bundled poor loans into “investment grade” products, and feeble regulators that failed to recognize the danger of the crisis at its outset contributing to the subsequent crisis. In the following chapters, he explores each of these antecedents leading to the crisis as well as the policy prescriptions and developments that followed—from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to the Dodd-Frank legislation.

His conclusions are well argued and the account of the crisis compelling.

The War that Ended Peace

Margaret MacMillan

On the occasion of the First World War’s centennial, Margaret MacMillan’s The War the Ended Peace asks why Europe would turn away from a period of hitherto unseen prosperity in the years preceding the declaration of war in 1914.

In the search for answers to her question, MacMillan focuses upon personal rivalries, ethnic nationalism, colonialism, and shifting alliances as the causal factors leading to war. In examining these causes she provides an eminently readable narrative investigating the lives of military and political leaders around the continent.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, “the debate over the war’s origins has raged for years. Ms. MacMillan’s explanation goes straight to the heart of political fallibility… Elegantly written, with wonderful character sketches of the key players, this is a book to be treasured.”

No Place to Hide

Glenn Greenwald

The tranches of data Edward Snowden released to Glenn Greenwald detailing electronic surveillance by intelligence agencies around the world made the latter a household name. His work alongside Laura Poitras and latterly Jeremy Scahill at The Intercept has continued to unravel intelligence collection by the U.S. National Security Agency and British Government Communications Headquarters.

No Place to Hide continues in a similar vein as Greenwald details what he views as crimes by the governments against their population. While perhaps being overly simplistic in its dichotomous representation of what constitutes “good” and “evil” with “the authorities” offered short shrift for purportedly denying their population access to information and journalists safety to perform their jobs, the book does particularly well explaining Greenwald’s contact with Edward Snowden and the ten days they spent together in Hong Kong before the first set of documents was released to the public by the Guardian and Washington Post.

Given the importance of these ten days to the ensuing court cases and politicking that has unfolded in the year since Snowden first entered the global consciousness, this book is an integral piece of the puzzle to understanding Snowden’s motivations in releasing the material to Greenwald and his team as well as Greenwald’s own motivations at the time and since.

NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone

David Auerswald and Stephen Saideman

As international forces finally pull out of Afghanistan, scholars are investigating its implications for the future of warfare. David Auerswald and Stephen Saideman's NATO in Afghanistan investigates the multilateral aspects of waging war in the 21st century.

While naturally focusing on ISAF's recent role in Afghanistan, the book branches out into investigations of non-NATO members such as Australia and NATO's response to the recent crisis in Libya. The book also has a number of important findings relating to the differences between the political systems and their subsequent influence upon foreign policy prerogatives.

In a world in which alliance formation and coalition-building remain the primary means by which international relations is carried out, this work—as David Lake of the University of California, San Diego notes—is essential reading for both policymakers and scholars.