Some people write books for love. Others write for fame, or more impractically for money. Then there are those who strive for impact in Washington. This may seem most delusional of all. But in today’s Washington, books do matter — even if they often have the most influence when presented in abbreviated form.
Last month, President Obama expressed unexpected admiration for the work of the neoconservative intellectual and Mitt Romney adviser Robert Kagan. In an excerpt from his book “The World America Made” that appeared in The New Republic, Kagan set out to debunk the popular idea that America’s power and influence are waning. For Obama, Kagan’s argument was a welcome rebuke to his opponents’ complaint that he was presiding over his country’s decline.
I saw the potency of books firsthand while serving recently on the State Department’s policy planning staff. Ideas that originated between covers often shaped conversations and found their way into major speeches or memos. Indeed, a book, by its mere existence, can lend legitimacy to an argument in a sound-bite-driven debate. “There are so many ideas flying around, it’s very important that some have been worked out more thoroughly and comprehensively,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, the State Department’s policy planning director from 2009 to 2011. “When I find an idea I’ll immediately go to the book to make sure that it’s serious, even if I don’t read the whole book.” The author Leslie Gelb acknowledges that his “Power Rules,”where he argued that G.D.P. matters more than military might, was more influential when reduced to articles. Still, he says, publishing a book “gets people talking about what you did.”
The administration’s bibliophiles include the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, who told me by e-mail that he recently read “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” by John Lewis Gaddis; “On China,” by Henry Kissinger; “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,” by Thant Myint-U; and “A Peace to End All Peace,” a history of the division of the Middle East after World War I by David Fromkin. “Having a sense of history is critical to sound policy-making,” Donilon says.
Other consequential books, like Robert Wright’s “Nonzero,” are less obviously related to questions of policy. “Nonzero” employs evolutionary biology and game theory to argue that life is not a zero-sum game with a clear winner and loser. “You operate within a much more horizontal setting, where you operate by connecting to others and mobilizing others in ways that advance common causes,” Slaughter says. “ ‘Nonzero’ basically spells out the logic of that.” This idea was reflected in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2010 Internet Freedom speech, which championed the “freedom to connect.” Slaughter, who was policy planning director at the time, says, “We were actively focused on a world in which the power to connect to others is essential.”
Derek Chollet, senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council, says Robert Kaplan’s “Monsoon” affected thinking across the Obama administration. Kaplan asserts that America’s ability to project power in the future requires an understanding of the dynamics of the greater Indian Ocean, in particular the rivalries and competition over trade routes among the United States, China, India, and countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. “There hasn’t been much written about the Indian Ocean that is accessible to the nonscholar. ‘Monsoon’ forced people to think differently. It put the Indian Ocean on the agenda,” Chollet says. In a speech in Chennai, India, last July, Hillary Clinton drew attention to the area’s strategic value.
Books influence economic decision makers as well. Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council in 2009-10, says he was impressed by Liaquat Ahamed’s “Lords of Finance,” which highlights the dangerous consequences of government austerity in the wake of financial crisis. Summers says that Ahamed’s book reinforced his belief in the “overwhelming importance” of expansionary policy. From Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart’s “This Time Is Different,” a history of financial crises through the ages, Summers took away an emphasis on “deleveraging as an important aspect of the crisis, the risks that crisis would spread to Europe and the risks that policy makers will be fooled by false dawns in the economic data.”
He also reread David Halberstam’s 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest,” a withering indictment of ivory tower intellectuals’ role in planning the Vietnam War. Some critics would say that the Obama administration repeated the errors of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations by putting too much trust in highly educated technocrats like Summers himself. For his part, Summers says “The Best and the Brightest” provided valuable lessons in humility: it reminded him “that people in government positions would be given the positive news that they wanted to hear, would be overconfident about policy paths they had selected and would be insufficiently open to outside opinion.”
Summers adds that it is not always necessary to read an entire book. Rather, a good review can capture a fair amount of what’s necessary for a policy maker to learn. He says, “If you tell me that the policy makers are reading the reviews, not the books, I don’t take that as evidence that the books aren’t influential.”
Of course, books have impressed administrations at least since the time of Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have told Harriet Beecher Stowe that she started the Civil War by writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Dwight Macdonald’s 1963 review of Michael Harrington’s “Other America” helped spur the war on poverty. The fallout from Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 book “The Clash of Civilizations” is immeasurable. And needless to say, a book’s effects can be very different from what the author intended. The depiction of ethnic violence in southeastern Europe as an age-old tradition in Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts” was reportedly used by the Clinton administration to justify nonintervention in the Balkans, a reading that Kaplan calls “naïve.”
What hasn’t changed is that a book with a strong idea has a good chance of getting inside the Beltway in some form or other. And what makes for a strong idea? Back in the 1960s, a former assistant secretary of defense, John T. McNaughton, perhaps put it best: An outside idea has a chance to influence government policy only if it has two characteristics. First, it can be stated in a simple declarative sentence. Second, once stated it is obviously true.