If you share my background or passion for geopolitics, foreign policy, and international relations, then consider including the following books to your reading list, recommended by leading international relations thinker and professor Stephen M. Walt. Feel free to add your own must-reads, which I will do myself in a future post.
1). Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War.
According to Walt, the book provides “an enduring typology of different theories of war (i.e., locating them either in the nature of man, the characteristics of states, or the anarchic international system)” coupled with a powerful critique of each approach.
2). Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
This classic examines how “small differences in climate, population, agronomy, and the like turned out to have far-reaching effects on the evolution of human societies and the long-term balance of power.”
3). Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence.
The author has since won a Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering theories on international conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis — topics that are explored in this still relevant 1966 book.
4). James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.
This book examines the long and depressing history of authoritarians trying their hand at progress, with disastrous results (think the collectivization policy of the Soviet Union, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward). It serves as a cautionary tale on utopian ventures, especially when undertaken by centralized political authorities and well intentioned by narrow minded idealists. Definitely an important work to keep in mind in this era of big projects.
5). David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest.
Like the previous selection, this book explores the follies and foibles of policymakers, specifically with regards to the Vietnam War.
6). Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics.
This intriguing book looks at world politics and foreign policy through the prism of psychology. How do the perspectives and mental states of policymakers impact international relations? It is a question that is not asked enough, let alone explored.
7). John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
This book is about the vagaries and misfortunes of nations. As Walt sums up: “Why do bad things happen to good peoples? Why do “good states” do lots of bad things? Mearsheimer tells you. Clearly written, controversial, and depressingly persuasive”.
8). Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism.
“The state is the dominant political form in the world today, and nationalism remains a powerful political force. This book will help you understand where it came from and why it endures”. Given the rise of nationalism among both emerging powers and smaller nations fearful of globalization, this is a very necessary read.
9). Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years & Years of Upheaval.
Kissinger’s questionable legacy makes his memoir all the more important to read, if only because it helps us understand firsthand the brutal logic of realpolitik. The book also offers insights of various other major political players in both the U.S. and abroad, though as Waltz warns, none of it should be taken at face value.
10). Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.
Polanyi ambitious tries to trace the origins of industrialization, and the subsequent modern world, and what impact it has had on society, culture, and politics. The book takes a critical stance on capitalism and the idea of a self regulating market, concerns that are increasingly relevant in our globalized planet.
Waltz also offers several honorable mentions worth considering.
Geoffrey Blainey The Causes of War; Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History; Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population; Robert Gilpin,The Political Economy of International Relations; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars; T.C.W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars; R. R. Palmer,The Age of the Democratic Revolution; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War; Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies; Tony Smith, The Problem of Imperlalism; and Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker.
Needless to say, these books are just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast world of political and international relations literature. But they are definitely great places to start. I will put together my own list of recommendations when time permits, but feel free to share your own! (No worries, you do not need to be an expert or anything — just share whatever book had influenced or otherwise appealed to you.)