What to Read on Diplomacy and International Affairs from 2018

The diplomatic profession took a lot of incoming fire in 2018. A rich field of new books reveal deeper concern for and care of diplomatic practice in the operation of global relations.  These books top my list for the year:


The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, Ben Steil, Winner of the 2018 American Academy of Diplomacy Douglas Dillon Award.

Called “A stylish history of the 1940s effort to rebuild Europe is a case study in far-sighted statesmanship” by Tony Barber in FT, Steil reinforces the facts surrounding one of modern U.S. diplomacy’s greatest hits: rebuilding Europe and engaging to secure its future security and economic interests. It worked, as Melvyn P. Leffler observes,  due to U.S. alignment of “interests with capacities in Europe” and a calculated realism regarding Soviet influence.



The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro

Even though Max Boot didn’t find the argument persuasive, the thesis is bold:

They claim that while “it did not end war between states,” the Kellogg-Briand Pact did mark “the beginning of the end.” More than that, “it reshaped the world map, catalyzed the human rights revolution, enabled the use of economic sanctions as a tool of law enforcement, and ignited the explosion in the number of international organizations that regulate so many aspects of our daily lives.” Oh, and it led to “the replacement of one international order with another.”



How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

As Dan Drezner wrote earlier this year in WaPo:

… with great care, these two comparative politics scholars used their background in Latin America and Eastern Europe to explain how institutionalized democracies break down. They then take these guidelines and train their analytical lens on the United States.

Is the U.S. in trouble? The willingness of President Trump to disregard norms–some of which help to mitigate political differences–may lead to unfavorable outcomes. How does this look? One of the authors, Steven Levitsky, explains to Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air:

LEVISKY: The rules themselves, particularly in a very simple, short Constitution like that of the United States, can never get a – can never fully guide behavior. And so our behavior needs to be guided by informal rules, by norms. And we focus on two of them in particular – what we call mutual toleration, which is really, really fundamental in any democracy, which is simply that among the major parties, there’s an acceptance that their rivals are legitimate, that we may disagree with the other side. We may really dislike the other side. But at the end of the day, we recognize publicly – and we tell this to our followers – that the other side is equally patriotic, and that it can govern legitimately. That’s one.

The other one is what we call forbearance, which is restraint in the exercise of power. And that’s a little bit counterintuitive. We don’t usually think about forbearance in politics, but it’s absolutely central. Think about what the president can do under the Constitution. The president can pardon anybody he wants at any time. The president can pack the Supreme Court. If the president has a majority in Congress – which many presidents do – and the president doesn’t like the makeup of the Supreme Court, he could pass a law expanding the court to 11 or 13 and fill with allies – again, he needs a legislative majority – but can do it. FDR tried.




The Origins of the Chinese Nation: Song China and the Forging of an East Asian World Order, Nicolas Tackett.

James Palmer writes in FP.com:

At a time when the Chinese Communist Party—itself a foreign import—is attempting to wipe out the complexities and nuances of China’s long, multicultural history, Tackett’s book is a reminder of just how fascinating and messy the story of the Chinese nation actually is.



Many other books are worth considering from 2018, focusing on economics, security, theory, and practice–as well as the what the world may look like* 100 years from now:

  • The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, Christopher Andrew
  • Does terrorism work? A history, Richard English
  • Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama
  • The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen
  • The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization, John B. Judi
  • The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Robert Kagan
  • Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World, Andrew Lambert
  • The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce
  • The Dawn Of Eurasia: On The Trail Of The New World Order, Bruno Maçães*
  • The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John Mearsheimer
  • The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon, Kathleen J. McInnis
  • Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation, Sophie Pedder
  • LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media, P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
  • The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, Stephen Walt


My jury of one is still out on a single best read on Brexit, but I do feel confident giving an Honorable Mention to one to watch for in 2109: George Packer’s hagiography of Richard Holbrook will be based on exclusive access to the diplomatic l’enfant terrible’s papers. Holbrook continues to be one of the few figures  looming large in U.S. diplomacy at the end of the 20th century. Release is scheduled for 7 May 2019 from Knopf, and hopefully the hype lives up to the legend.

Choosing Civility

The late Johns Hopkins Italian literature professor, P.M. Forni, made a unique career pivot from teaching Dante and 16th century manners–to the practial application of improving civil discourse. And while his rules can be seen as a useful set of principles for diplomacy, they are essential componenents of public life.

Civility, to Dr. Forni, was not just a matter of learning and observing rules of good manners. It was something with very real consequences. Civility means less stress, which has advantages like improved health, safer driving and more productivity at work.

Lack of civility, he argued, is also more than a matter of semantics.

“Acts of violence are often the result of an exchange of acts of rudeness that spiral out of control,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2007. “Disrespect can lead to bloodshed. By keeping the levels of incivility down we keep the levels of violence down.”

Via P.M. Forni, Who Argued for ‘Chosing Civlity,’ Dies at 67 NYT

His book, Choosing Ciivility, could be used as a guidebook for civics education, diplomacy training, as well as academic and career advisement. In fact, writing in NACADA’s journal, Kim Wrigt offered this review:

Each of Forni’s twenty-five rules is a guide to behaving civilly in our personal and professional dealings with others. While all of the chapters are a good reminder of how we should behave towards others, there are a few rules that I have found to be especially relevant in helping students make the most of their experiences on our college campuses.

The first rule is to pay attention. While this seems to be simple and obvious Forni points out that by paying attention to others we are “…acknowledging and honoring…” their worth (p. 38). This applies to both advisors and students – we should be fully present in our conversations with each other in order to make the most of the time we have with each other….

Forni’s closing thoughts are that there is nothing as important as having quality interactions with others. Better interactions equal a better life; behaving civilly is as simple as taking time to stop and think before we act.

Via NACADA Journal, Book Review, Issue 34(1)



Booklist | A Critique of Human Rights

The idea of human rights is assumed to be universal. Not so fast, says a Yale prof. Samuel Moyn offers a sharp critique of human rights with a particular interest in economic inequality:

…[I]n “Not Enough,” he ex­am­ines how they have been an­swered by in­ternational lawyers, po­lit­i­cal philoso­phers and hu­man-rights ac­tivists since the end of World War II. He con­cludes that, while the hu­man rights move­ment has not de­lib­er­ately sup­ported the growth of ma­te­r­ial in­equal­ity dur­ing this pe­riod, it has also not done enough to com­bat it: “un­wit­tingly, the cur­rent hu­man rights move­ment ap­pears to be help­ing Croe­sus live out his plan,” Mr. Moyn writes. In gen­eral terms, Mr. Moyn’s book cov­ers much the same ground as his 2010 study, “The Last Utopia,” which also treated the mod­ern his­tory of hu­man rights. In­deed, Mr. Moyn de­scribes his new vol­ume as a “re­write” of the ear­lier one: “What can make the study of his­tory ex­cit­ing is that its in­fin­ity of sources and our change in per­spec­tive can al­low two books on the same topic by the same per­son to bear al­most no re­sem­blance to each other.” De­spite this dis­claimer, there is a ba­sic con­sis­tency in Mr. Moyn’s po­si­tion: In both books he writes as a critic of hu­man rights from the left.

Via WSJ, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There,”www.wsj.com/articles/not-enough-review-dont-just-do-something-stand-there-1524170889

Booklist | Scorecard Diplomacy

Can a top 20 list (or bottom 10?) be a tool to make countries behave? A new book by Judith G. Kelley of Duke University makes sense of the value that comes from doing rankings and grading in an effort to change state behavior.

Scorecard Diplomacy by Judith Kelley shows that public grades can evoke countries’ concerns about their reputations and motivate them to address thorny problems

If you aren’t familiar with Kelly’s work, take a look.

Kelley’s work focuses on how states, international organizations and NGOs can promote domestic political reforms in problem states, and how international norms, laws and other governance tools influence state behavior. Her work addresses human rights and democracy, international election observation, and human trafficking. Her Project on International Election Monitoring led to a book, Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works and Why It Often Fails (Princeton 2012), which was “One of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013” and also received the Chadwick F. Alger Prize, which recognizes the “best book published in the previous calendar year on the subject of international organization and multilateralism.” The work behind Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and another from the Smith Richardson Foundation.


Source: Scorecard Diplomacy

Booklist | The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner

Gaining and using power is an old subject–and at the core of politics diplomacy, and leadership. So this new book by Dacher Keltner upends the traditional Machiavellian interpretation by arguing that you become more powerful through “empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity.” That’s the good news.

The bad news? Obtaining power sows the seeds for our downfall.

This is the “paradox” of Keltner’s title: it is true that being nice is the best path to power, but achieving power reliably turns people nasty. “The seductions of power,” as he puts it, “induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place.” Research demonstrates that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively: to have affairs; to drive inconsiderately; to lie; to argue that it is justifiable for them to break rules others should follow; and, in one entertaining study by Keltner and his colleagues, to steal sweets from children. Rich people even shoplift more than the poor. All in all, accumulating power seems to trigger a tendency to self-absorption: in experiments, when people are asked to draw the letter E on their own foreheads so that others can read it, powerful people are more likely to draw it the right way round to themselves, and backwards to onlookers. In a literal sense, they no longer see the world from other people’s perspective.

Source: The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner review – how success triggers self-absorption | Books | The Guardian


Booklist | Best Diplomacy Books of 2015

Add these 2105 books that focus on the history, practice, and key issues in diplomacy to your reading list:


Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy by David Milne – the most important rethinking of American foreign policy, dividing key thinkers between artistic and scientific approaches

Realpolitik: A History by John Bew – unraveling a German contribution and distinguishing it from the realist school of thought

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen – explores the first grand attempt at international governance and a failed attempt to outlaw war

The Deluge, by Adam Tooze – an original take on the interwar period as power gravitated from Europe to the US

ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger – the must-read book to understand the Middle East disruptor

King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant by Stephen Church – commemorating the 800th anniversary of a foundational doc

Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson – making the case that he cannot be ignored as a major diplomatic strategist, an effort to “revise the revisionists

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin – on his institutionalizing failures, using intuition over facts, and forming the foundation for neoconservative missteps

Red Team: How to Succeed By Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko – avoiding groupthink by thinking like the other side

The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft by Hal Brands (Editor), Jeremi Suri (Editor) – what can policymakers really learn from history?

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century by Alistair Horne – a longtime writer of military history isolates a key factor

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turtle – how technology makes it harder for us to be together, diminishing empathy

The New York Review Abroad edited by Robert B Silvers with introductory updates by Ian Buruma – around the world in 27 essays


Global Economics

Inequality: What Can be Done? by Anthony Atkinson – to follow up on Piketty’s big idea last year, how about a solution?

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis – revealing how Africa sits at the bottom on of the global industrial chain

Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin by Nathaniel Popper – from a global joke to a movement and new currency

Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik – taking on the dismal science in the form of a defense


Country Focus


Global Rules: America, Britain, and a Disordered World by James E. Cronin

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, by Dan Ephron – a murder that didn’t make peace inevitable or settle the big Israeli debate

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day by Carrie Gibson

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
by Sudhir Hazareesingh

The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War by Arkady Ostrovsky

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky

The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business by Alex de Waal


Finally, take a look and James Lindsay’s complication of ten American foreign policy influencers who died in 2015. Happy New Year!

Booklist | Ian Kershaw’s ‘To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949’ 

Vytautas The Great War Museum Kaunas, Lithuania

Could the Great War have been avoided? Ian Kershaw’s new book offers an explanation:

Kershaw argues that World War I could have been forestalled if Vienna had acted with speed to punish Serbia for its complicity in the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it had the Kaiser’s reckless blank check for punishment, but as Kershaw puts it, the Austrian Empire “knew only two speeds, slow and dead stop.” By the time Vienna sent its ultimatum to Belgrade, three weeks after the assassination, Russia, with France in tow, had encouraged the Serbs to be more bloody-minded. More bloody-minded, in my own judgment, than justified.

Kershaw identifies a second missed opportunity to avert mass slaughter. He writes that even as Russia started to mobilize in the summer of 1914 — much before Germany — “a firm British declaration of neutrality . . . might even at a late hour have prevented general war. But Grey’s disastrous hesitation meant that the room for diplomatic initiatives vanished.” Pretty well every history nods to the poetic prescience of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, in the foreboding he expressed on Aug. 3. Standing by his big window overlooking Horse Guards Parade, he watched the gas lights being lit in the street below and said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They were, though Grey lived to see Europe, with the lights on, begin to fumble its irresolute way to World War II.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story

Source: Ian Kershaw’s ‘To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949’ – The New York Times