Your Summer IR Reads

Our list of the best books on IR from 2012 for those lazy days at the beach.

By: /
19 July, 2012
By: OpenCanada Staff

It’s the summer, when the living is easy – that is to say, the prefect time to catch up on your foreign affairs reading. Below are OpenCanada’s picks for the best beach/cottage/poolside IR reads from 2012.

1. Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, by Ian Bremmer


2. No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn, by Charles A. Kupchan

It is time to broaden the debate over whether we are living in a unipolar world, and ask whether the current world will even be recognizable in 50, 30, or even 20 years. Pick up the Council on Foreign Relations’ Charles A. Kupchan’s No One’s World to learn how we can move smoothly toward a system characterized by multiple modernities, and read Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation For Itself to discover a modernity beyond the control of any power – a chaotic and potentially dangerous world that belongs to no one.

3. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

American decline has returned to the forefront of American foreign-policy discussions, and many esteemed voices in foreign-affairs circles have offered their prescriptions. From “strategic retrenchment” to “sustained forward engagement,” there are a lot of policy options on the table, and it can be tough work to separate the good from the excellent and the prescient. Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision defines the latter category, with its insightful adaptation of traditional “balance of power” arguments to the 21st century. Brzezinski counters claims of inevitable American decline, and proposes that a strategy of “off-shore” balancing can renew and safeguard a liberal world order. His clear-eyed vision gives readers a standard for evaluating the most recent wave of books on American grand strategy.

4. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Figuring out why some states have dominated the global economy while others stagnate or collapse remains critical, as the likes of Jared Diamond and Paul Collier have shown us. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson are the two latest intellectual heavyweights to wade into the murky waters of the “failed state” debate. They explain that it is the centralization of power and inclusivity of institutions that matter most to a nation’s development, shedding light on such puzzling cases as Botswana’s wealth and North Korea’s poverty.

5. The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East, by Tariq Ramadan


6. The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, by Marc Lynch

Never one to shy away from controversy, Tariq challenges the Arab world to step forward and redefine its identity in the modern world. For those who find the “secular modernity versus Islamic traditionalism” framework unsatisfying, Ramadan’s book is a refreshing exploration of the alternative roles for Islam in contemporary Arab society. The Arab Awakening poses fascinating questions about the legacy of the Arab Spring, and the means by which Arab leadership can address the most pressing challenges facing the Middle East.

Marc Lynch’s The Arab Uprising poses a similarly tough challenge, but this one is directed at the West: to accept that the Arab Spring has transformed Middle Eastern politics for good, and to be wary of leaping to conclusions about what Islamist majority governments will mean for democracy in the Arab world. Tracing the recent upheaval back to the 1950s Free Officers revolution in Egypt, Lynch remains hopeful about the region’s overall trajectory. A provocative read, particularly in light of recent moves by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

7. China Airborne, by James Fallows

Much has been written about China’s economic transformation and the impact of its rise on the international agenda. On issues ranging from climate change to counterterrorism, China now exerts enormous influence, but it also faces enormous internal challenges. There are still few discussions of China’s economy that go beyond one-dimensional portrayals of an economic powerhouse or a hollowed-out edifice destined for stagnation and failure. In China Airborne, James Fallows rises above such superficial analyses by carefully tracking the development of the Chinese aviation industry. The view from Chinese airspace is of a country flying high in some industries, but struggling to even achieve lift-off in others. With Fallows as navigator, we get real insight into why.

8. George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis

Although George F. Kennan didn’t quite make OpenCanada’s 2012 publication cut-off, we felt obliged to make an exception. The title and author of this book speak for themselves: the life of the father of Cold War containment doctrine, in the hands of one of the most eminent historians of the Cold War. Kennan granted Gaddis exclusive access to his personal documents, and the men developed a close relationship that continued right up until Kennan’s death. The result is a masterful exploration of a man whose ideas on power and politics, history and diplomacy, continue to influence U.S. foreign policy. Gaddis’ elegant prose does justice to a man whose telegrams and articles helped to launch policies that transformed the post-Second World War world in ways that, more often than not, caused Kennan enormous frustration and regret.

9. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by Rachel Maddow

One could be forgiven for expecting a book by an MSNBC talk-show host to be an exercise in self-promotion. One could also be forgiven for expecting a book by Rachel Maddow to offer a less-than-balanced portrayal of a highly politicized issue. Political-talk-show hosts are hardly known for publishing deeply thoughtful, nuanced accounts, or for fairly presenting issues that sharply divide those on the left from those on the right. Drift does both. Maddow carefully analyzes what the pendulum-like shifts in power between Congress and the executive have meant for the exercise of American military power in the past and present, and makes a strong case that the decision to declare war has largely drifted into the hands of the president. Her book has been acclaimed by voices across the political spectrum – no small feat, given Maddow’s provocative television persona.

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