This holiday season, we asked some of our contributors and partners — diplomats, professors, journalists and others — what they would recommend to readers looking to spend some time diving into global issues. Their suggestions (novels, non-fiction books and even a CSIS report) run the gamut in terms of subject matter, from refugees in Germany, nation building in the Balkans and the history of NATO to the decline of American diplomacy and repression in China. Whether new or decades-old, they all offer lessons for understanding the world as we head into 2019.
Whether spending your break in warmer climes, huddled under a blanket by the fire or somewhere in between, here’s our annual list of what to read this winter.
1. Go, Went, Gone. By Jenny Erpenbeck
— Charlie Foran, award-winning author and CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC)
Fast becoming acknowledged as the pre-eminent literary response to date to the refugee crisis in Europe, this novel by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck is both an epic exercise in empathy and a work of profound moral outrage. The fact that Erpenbeck personally interviewed dozens of refugees to Germany, and wove their courageous, heart-breaking stories into the larger narrative of a stolid Berlin academic being ‘woke’ not so much to the crisis as to his own desire to partake of a deeper shared humanity, makes the narrative drive of Go, Went, Gone all the more astonishing.
2. Almighty. By Dan Zak
— Erin Hunt, the program manager at Mines Action Canada and a humanitarian disarmament expert
Nuclear weapons have been in the news a lot this year with the Singapore Summit and the United States pulling out of the Iran Deal. Dan Zak’s Almighty looks at the people behind the mythic weapons — the promoters, the believers, the survivors, the agitators and the decision-makers. While the book focuses on the United States, it shows that anyone can contribute to nuclear disarmament. Plus, it gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the lead-up to the negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, including stories from inside the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
3. Asymmetry. By Lisa Halliday
— Jeremy Kinsman, Canada’s former ambassador to the European Union
By far the most compelling book I have read this year, or for several years, is the first novel by Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (in fact, I read it twice, a few months apart). It is composed of two novellas that are both connected to a theme of the survival of individual identity when confronting power. In the first instance, the voice is that of an aspiring young writer who is having a long affair with a world-famous novelist; in the second, the voice is that of a young American professional, born in Iraq, confronting the robotic and soulless immigration/security interrogators at Heathrow. It is extremely intelligent and at times very, very funny, though this is not a comic novel!
4. The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World. By Robert Kagan
— Roland Paris, professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and associate fellow at Chatham House
Kagan’s brilliant little book – on the fragility of the liberal international order and the threats it now faces – is the best I’ve read on the subject. Be forewarned: it’s a sobering read.
5. A Short History of Progress. By Ronald Wright
— Sally Armstrong, Amnesty International award winner, journalist, teacher, author and human rights activist
The book I’m reading now is A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. It’s an astonishing book, stuffed with information — the kind of factoids you want to repeat at dinner parties — and full of description, some of it hilarious. It’s also an important book that reminds us about where we’ve been and what we need to do to safeguard tomorrow. (And, I’ll put Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations in a few Christmas stockings this year. And when “the weather outside is frightful” I plan to curl up with Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin.)
6. Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840–1914. By Edin Hajdarpasic
— Jasmin Mujanović, political scientist and author
I’ve been re-reading Edin Hajdarpasic’s Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840–1914 ahead of its paperback re-release next April. Although concentrated on state and nation building processes in Bosnia, and the Balkans more broadly, it’s a remarkable text to consult in today’s era of populism. In short, it is an adroit deconstruction of nationalist mythologies, especially those concerning homogeneous homelands of various sorts. Instead, Hajdarpasic invites us to embrace a kind of organic complexity and fluidity — what he calls “incompleteness” — that is, a process of continued dialogue, negotiation and consternation, even (or especially after) episodes of violence. Well worth a read, even for non-experts.
7. Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China. By Diana Fu
— Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of Jihad &Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power
Diana Fu’s award-winning new book, Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China, gives readers a rare and intimate look at social and political protest under repressive rule. Fu’s hard-won field research reveals the secret and surprising ways that human beings fight for their rights, against the odds. A must-read for anyone interested in either social movements or Chinese politics.
8. The Fountainhead. By Ayn Rand
— Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares
Relevant as ever, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead compels readers to reflect on their individuality and on the strength of their convictions. At a time when populism and conformity seem to be increasingly at odds with independence and moral integrity, several of the books characters, plot lines and themes will be immediately relatable. Long after finishing Rand’s finely crafted novel, readers will no doubt be left pondering how much of protagonist Howard Roark they see in themselves.
9. Forging the Alliance: NATO 1945-1950. By Don Cook
— Ben Rowswell, former diplomat and new president of the Canadian International Council
Today our liberal democracies cling to the international order we created, hoping that the rise of a rival ideology might be confined to a few states who will run their domestic affairs differently. If a few countries fall to populist authoritarianism, that shouldn’t necessarily affect us, right?
We faced a similar threat in 1947, when the rival ideology was communism. Don Cook’s Forging the Alliance recounts how it slowly dawned on our leaders that communist regimes saw the international order as a threat to their existence and were mobilizing to overturn it. The collective willpower we summoned to protect that order became institutionalized as NATO. What willpower can we summon today?
10. The Development Dance: How Donors and Recipients Negotiate the Delivery of Foreign Aid. By Haley J. Swedlund
— Chris W. J. Roberts, instructor at the University of Calgary and president of African Access Consulting
For those who remember Keith Spicer’s landmark 1966 book on Canadian development assistance, A Samaritan State? External Aid in Canada’s Foreign Policy, Haley Swedlund’s short but highly packed and readable study of the difficulties in establishing credible commitments in donor-recipient aid relationships will sound eerily familiar. Over 50 years later, Swedlund interviews officials from a range of donor agencies and recipient countries in Africa to uncover commitment problems on both sides.
Aid is always negotiated, subject to compromises and broken promises. More attention is needed on the mechanisms used and constraints facing those who give and receive aid, and those who influence how aid resources are spent. Canadian officials admitted to Spicer in the 1960s that supply side pressures often overwhelmed demand side preferences and ignored whether development objectives were met or sustainable. Swedlund provides an empirically rich, contemporary analysis that concludes that the only way out of that dynamic is to “design institutions that incentivize both donor agencies and recipient governments to live up to their commitments.” That is no easy task, but recognizing the credible commitment problem in development assistance is as or more important than simply increasing aid budgets. The Development Dance should be required reading for anyone interested in making aid work better.
11. War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. By Ronan Farrow
—Daryl Copeland, research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and former diplomat
For those who
favour talking over fighting, and negotiation over the use of force, War on Peace is an important book. There
are no military solutions to the manifold challenges that imperil the planet.
In my 30 years of doing Canadian diplomacy, I developed a great respect for the professional staff of the US State Department. In many instances, their support was invaluable. It made a difference.
To witness that once formidable institution under siege, as chronicled in substantial detail by Ronan Farrow, is profoundly disheartening. One can only hope for brighter days ahead. But that is a distant beacon.
12. Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation. Report by various authors.
— Stephanie Carvin, assistant professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and former national security analyst
In early December CSIS Director David Vigneault indicated that the greatest threat to national security is foreign influence and espionage. This report provides an overview of how foreign influence works and how it might impact Canada moving forward. It’s not beach reading, but it provides an overview of how states are engaging in clandestine foreign influence activity. Knowing how this activity works is crucial for understanding threats to the 2019 election — something our national security services are increasingly warning us about. The report is not written by CSIS, but is rather a collection of anonymous articles by experts.
Best yet? It’s free!