Students across the United States are heading back to class — in utterly unconventional times, of course, with many attending virtually and under unusual schedules. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: Many will be assigned certain classics in their international relations, history, political science, and/or regional studies courses. Recognizing that newer books and journal articles with fresh takes on the classic subjects don’t always make the syllabus, scholars and staff from Brookings Foreign Policy offer must-reads for students looking to supplement their coursework.
Richard Bush recommends:
Fear: Trump in the White House
For a riveting account of how foreign policy was really made in the Trump administration, I recommend Bob Woodward’s 2019 book “Fear.” It describes a series of encounters that President Trump had with his economic advisers on the one hand, and his national security team on the other, through spring 2018. Each group accepted the basic parameters of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy. Each tried in every way they could to explain this to Trump, only to learn — over and over again — that he had rigid, non-mainstream views on trade and defense that smart practitioners were unable to budge.
James Goldgeier recommends:
Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War
I highly recommend Lindsey O’Rourke’s “Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War,” published by Cornell University Press in 2018. O’Rourke conducted significant archival research and created an original dataset of U.S.-backed covert and overt regime change attempts during the Cold War. She discovered that there were 10 times as many covert efforts as overt action, and only one in eight U.S. covert operations supported replacing an authoritarian regime with a democratic government. A critical insight from the book is that policymakers rarely got what they wanted through efforts at regime change, which had profoundly negative effects on the populations and their attitudes toward the United States. The book is a model for students thinking about their own research projects. O’Rourke is clear about the policy problem; she articulates alternative hypotheses; and she tests her theory using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods.
Jesse Kornbluth recommends:
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics
All too often, natural geographical features are absent in geopolitical debates and analysis. In the 2015 book “Prisoners of Geography,” intrepid journalist Tim Marshall uses 10 up-to-date maps to examine the physical features of Russia, China, the United States, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Japan and Korea, and the Arctic to analyze the unique geopolitical challenges facing these countries and regions. Marshall’s book — simultaneously an atlas and analysis — provides a basis for a deeper understanding of global entanglements, why world leaders make the big decisions they do, and how a rapidly-changing physical planet will reshape the global geopolitical landscape as well.
Michael O’Hanlon recommends:
Becoming Kim Jong Un: A former CIA officer’s insights into North Korea’s enigmatic young dictator
This book, published in 2020, is awesome. It is one of the five best-written and most lively tomes I’ve ever enjoyed out of Brookings, in a quarter-century of working here and 35 years of reading the Institution’s work. Jung Pak was the CIA’s top Kim Jong Un watcher for eight years, until we persuaded her to join us as a senior fellow in 2017, and she slaved over this book during her first 2+ years in the Foreign Policy program. I might not have initially realized how much I’d enjoy reading about a young-ish, unusually-kempt, brutal dictator with a weird hairdo. But Jung weaves into the story a lot of things, including explanations of how the CIA studies difficult targets, how Kim was raised and chosen for leadership, what inspirations he learned watching his father but also understanding — more importantly, perhaps — the legacy of his grandfather. You read here about “Pyonghattan,” Kim’s goals for economic reform and modernization of his country’s capital city; about “pruning the family tree,” including Kim’s assassinations of his uncle and half-brother, as well as the parts of the family tree Kim likes better, such as his stylish sister; and about the life-long “education of Kim Jong Un,” namely what lessons Kim has learned dealing with the outside world. Jung explores how we in the United States have the power to shape this nuclear-armed dictator’s future lessons and incentives — after having come perilously close to going to war in 2017. For so many reasons, this book is great.
Bruce Riedel recommends:
The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future
The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) commands America’s foremost security service, responsible for collecting and analyzing all source intelligence for the president. Now we have a brilliant new book that provides portraits of the DCIs of the last half-century. Chris Whipple’s 2020 book, “The Spymasters,” provides gripping biographies of every director since Richard Helms in the 1970s. Controversy surrounds every one of them. “The Spymasters” gives credit and fault where each is due. The author of a previous insightful book on White House chiefs of staff, Whipple interviewed almost all the living former DCIs and dozens of other experts and observers (myself included). He provides interesting new accounts of CIA covert operations like the death of Hezbolla terrorist Imad Mughniyah in 2008. If you are a student interested in American foreign policy or considering a career in the Central Intelligence Agency — or simply interested in the men, and now one woman, who run the CIA — this is the book for you.
Ted Reinert recommends:
Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference
David Shimer’s 2020 book “Rigged” gives a detailed account of Russia’s catastrophically successful covert interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.S. response before, during, and after Election Day. What’s more, he first provides the historical context of Russian and U.S. covert electoral interference across the globe — from Cold War operations in Italy, Chile, West Germany, and the U.S. itself to the more asymmetric era of recent decades in which Washington’s cost-benefit analysis and democracy promotion toolkit evolved and Moscow weaponized the evolving online environment. The book features cases like Russia’s 1996 election, Serbia, Iraq, Ukraine, the Brexit referendum, and Montenegro. Shimer synthesizes a wide breadth of research and interviews with a very impressive roster of covert interference practitioners and other high-level former policymakers, and has produced a gripping narrative with sharp analysis and timely, useful conclusions.
Natan Sachs recommends:
Building social cohesion between Christians and Muslims through soccer in post-ISIS Iraq
A brand-new study in the journal Science by a graduate student caught my eye both for what it says both about peacebuilding in war-torn settings and about the design of social science research. Salma Mousa randomly assigned youth soccer players, Christian and Muslim in post-ISIS Iraq, to either mixed or single-religion teams. She then measured the effects of the on behavior within the soccer setting but also outside of it. Experiments like these — which come with their own ethical and methodological difficulties, to be sure — provide concrete and replicable data about what actually works in peacebuilding, something many people opine about without much data. Players on mixed teams indeed showed more affinity to players from other religions. But mixed-team players were no more likely to overcome faith boundaries outside of their sports league a couple of months later. It’s frustrating, but familiarity does not necessarily breed universal affinity. It hints at what I think is a general, if unfortunate, fact: People can have “some of their best friends” from another faction, and still be caught in a group dynamic that fuels conflict.
Amanda Sloat recommends:
The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal
Although “The Back Channel,” published in 2020, is not an academic book, it can provide an important real-world supplement to the research-oriented texts on this list. Bill Burns, a career diplomat for 33 years, gives readers a front-row look at the highs and lows of American diplomacy across the last five presidents. At a time when the State Department’s work has been denigrated, this book provides valuable insights into its inner workings and makes a compelling argument about its necessity.