Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Presidential Reading List

. Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Like everyone else, Dan Drezner picks up on the fact that Obama's early foreign policy reading list, erm, leaves something to be desired. He seems to have pulled a couple of FP-related books off the NY Times best seller list -- Zakaria and Friedman -- and that's it. So Drezner lays down a challenge:

This raises an interesting question, however -- if a newly-minted U.S. Senator did want to seriously bone up on foreign affairs, what books should he or she read?

[I]f you're educating a politician from scratch, you need something relatively pithy, accessible, relevant to current events, and America-centric. Given those criteria, Friedman's oeuvre makes some kind of inuitive sense, no matter how wrong or ripe for satire it is. I mean, what's the alternative -- Three Cups of Tea?

Aspiring leaders of America can and should do better than Friedman, however. I therefore call upon the readers of this blog to proffer up their suggestions -- if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?

In more recent years I'm sure Obama's read Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter, or has at least been exposed to their ideas sufficiently to bring them into his administration, so we should probably cross them off the list. Drezner's commenters tended toward the obvious: Khanna, Mearsheimer/Walt, Kaplan, Brzezinski, Kissinger, and Drezner. Excepting the last (of course), I think I'd rather him read Zakaria and Friedman.

I'd like to put a little meat on those bones, but I understand that heavily formal theory and complicated quantitative stuff is off the table, so I'd lean towards stuff that emphasizes history, but with a bent for theoretical explanations -- rather than descriptions -- of phenomena.

My three:

1. After Victory, by John Ikenberry. It gives a good account of the how the world we live in today was shaped by World War II, the importance of institutions and multilateralism in maintaining order, and the difficulties that power transitions present. All of these seem to be very relevant today. The historical narrative in engaging but rich in both theory and evidence.

2. The Strategy of Conflict, by Thomas Schelling. The previous administration seemed to think that many world leaders were crazy, undeterrable, or otherwise worth not engaging in any strategic way. This book (and most IR scholarship) forcefully argues otherwise. I think a foreign policy leader should have some exposure to rationalism as a paradigm of thought, and this book provides that without being technical. Schelling was a master at communicating counter-intuitive ideas in a clear way. For a game theorist, he's amazingly readable.

3. Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the 20th Century, Jeffry Frieden. Something on the economy, suitable for the times. This book not only covers various 20th century crises, but also has a longer-run view of the broader threats to economic stability and growth. In my opinion, a lack of global economic policy has been Obama's biggest presidential weakness so far, and it was predictable. His campaign rhetoric skewed protectionist, and while that stance has softened since he's been in office, the U.S. Federal Reserve has arguably been the most important global economic institution since 2007. It has coordinated with other central banks, extended liquidity to foreign firms, refused to engage in competitive currency devaluations, and otherwise helped stabilize a teetering the global financial system and broader economy. How has Obama responded? By leaving numerous Fed chairs unfilled (and also under-staffing Treasury). Many have criticized the Fed for not doing enough (some have criticized it for doing too much), but part of that may be due to Obama's unwillingness to get the needed personnel into the right spots. Obama seems to have little grasp of the interworkings of the global economy, and this book can help with that.

UPDATE: Stephanie Carvin has her own list here, and Phil Arena whines about how stupid this all is before offering up a suggestion here.


A Presidential Reading List
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