April 28, 2011

What Books on Foreign Affairs Should a U.S. Senator Read?

Daniel Drezner, chuckling along with the rest of us at a passage in Ryan Lizza's profile of the president's foreign policy, has a great challenge: what books should a junior senator seeking to bone up on foreign affairs read?

I have spent entirely too much time over the past 48 hours thinking about Drezner's challenge, and on reflection, I have one objection to the challenge itself and two guiding principles that inform my own recommendation.

First, the guiding principles:

1. Whatever text one recommends, the material should be written to be accessible and interesting to the non-specialist. You should not need a graduate education in the social sciences or two semesters of graduate-level statistics to understand what is being written. That rules out books using quantitative methods like The Logic of Political Survival but also, sadly, books like Waltz's Theory of International Politics, Aron's Peace and War, Katzenstein's (ed.) The Culture of National Security
and even Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

Now, a commenter on this blog once made the case that politicians have a duty to educate themselves in order to keep up with the scholarly literature in political science ... no, go ahead, take a minute ... have you stopped laughing yet? Good. Look, I have met and briefed a lot of really smart congressmen over the past two years, but in general, I share Drezner's cynical assessment of their priorities -- and I can't really bring myself to fault them for those priorities! They are merely responding to the incentive structures in place while, in most cases, trying to do their best to support intelligent policies. (Okay, maybe I am now the one being naive here, but to call some people out, two senators who have really impressed me with their curiosity and intelligence in meetings have been my former mayor, Bob Corker, and Mark Udall of Colorado. I am convinced we have more intelligent, hard-working public servants in the legislative branch than you would guess by watching Fox News or MSNBC.)

2. We area studies geeks need to give up on the idea that just because a congressman expresses concern about radical Islam that he or she is going to spend the afternoon reading Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. And just because someone says they are concerned about the Middle East and wants to support Israel does not mean they will then wade through A Political Economy of the Middle EastThe International Relations of the Persian Gulf,
or A History of the Modern Middle East. So classics of area studies are also out.

Those guiding principles lead to my objection to Drezner's challenge: why just books?

A lot of the reading material I digest comes from blogs as well as newspaper and magazine articles. A lot of it comes from scholarly and policy journals as well. Journals like the American Political Science Review and Perspectives on Politics are out because of Principle #1, and the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies is out because of Principle #2. I generally find articles in International Security, Survival, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, though, to be both accessible and thought-provoking. And asking a senator to read a few articles in Foreign Affairs each month en route back to his or her constituency actually sounds like a reasonable request. So I am not sure I would actually recommend a junior senator read a book so much as I would ask him or her to read a few carefully selected articles or scan through ForeignPolicy.com every other day. (John McCain, actually, went so far as to hire one of the very people who led the ForeignPolicy.com re-design.)

But if I am going to ask a junior senator to read a book on international relations, I think I would want the preface to the book to include language like this:

I have tried to write a short book in a style that is accesible to the intelligent reader rather than aimed at an academic audience, but with a careful analytical structure disclosed in the footnotes.

That exact language can be found in Joe Nye's The Future of Power, which I have been reading and enjoying. If I were to recommend a single book to a senator looking to expand his or her understanding of foreign affairs or international relations, I would probably recommend Nye's book -- not because I agree with everything in it (I don't) but because it is highly readable and is bound to get a legislator thinking through some of the issues that affect U.S. interests and policy abroad.

And that's what I would really want out of a book: I don't so much want to convert a legislator to a particular way of viewing the world. Realism, liberal internationalism, blahblahblah, who cares. I want, rather, to get a legislator to think systematically and critically about foreign policy and international relations. They can then choose for themselves what explanations they feel best describe how international relations should work -- or in fact do.

A quick update: (1) The chuckling provoked by that Ryan Lizza article had more to do with the revelation the president had been reading Tom Friedman and less that he had been reading Fareed Zakaria, whose The Future of Freedom
I read and enjoyed. But readers of this blog know how much I enjoyed reading Tom Friedman's reporting from Civil War-era Lebanon when I waded through the newspaper archives in 2008, and Drezner makes a strong case that Friedman actually does about as well as you could expect from an op-ed columnist on international affairs. (2) A lot of people on Drezner's blog have suggested Mearsheimer's Tragedy, which I read in 2005 but just pulled off my shelf and flipped through. I'll give it this: it is clear, intelligent and accessible. I still think, though, that it might be too Inside Baseball for a non-specialist reader.