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Charged Affairs Recommends: Great Foreign Policy Books of 2015

This week marks the first official week of 2016, which means that we here at YPFP are in a reflective mood. We asked our staff to look back at their reading list and select the best foreign policy books they read in 2015. Peruse at your leisure, and be sure to leave a comment letting us know which books should, or should not, have been included on the list. Happy reading!

Samantha Amenn, Editor-In-Chief, Charged Affairs

I have two books to recommend: The first is The Next Africa by Aubrey Hruby and Jake Bright, an entertaining and enlightening introduction to the vast and diverse continent of Africa. Whereas many books are pessimistic or apologetic for the West’s colonial past, this book takes a refreshingly optimistic, but realistic view on Africa’s economic future. It discusses how Africa burst on the global investment scene 2010 and proceeds to examine the already large number of investments companies (such as GE) in countries such as Nigeria and South Africa. It enthusiastically muses on Africa’s growing tech industry (yes, Africa has a tech industry), touches upon the growing entrepreneur class (many are African immigrants returning from the United States to Africa), and ends with a rousing call for investment in Africa’s future. The Next Africa is an intriguing and mind altering view of Africa and its future, and a must-read for one anyone interested not only in Africa but also in how the future of international relations will be shaped.

A second recommendation is for Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 by R. F. Foster. While at first glance this may not strike many as a foreign policy book, it offers a detailed study of the social, political, familial, and economic factors that can lead to intense racial and religious violence: a perspective incredibly relevant to today’s foreign policy landscape for many reasons, from violence in the Middle East to racial tensions in the United States. The senselessness of so much of the past year’s violence can make it seem irrational, but this books argues that the reasoning behind the violence can often be traced back to social and political factors. Yet Foster is at his best when describing the aftermath of Easter Rising and how the Irish were swept up into a larger war, one that they were still trying to understand long after it had ended. This chapter contains critical insight for readers interested in foreign policy, because it analyzes the most pivotal and most dangerous moment for an extremist group: the moment the group lose control and its cause is swept up into something bigger. If we can learn to see the signs and recognize these moments in our history, we might gain a better understanding of contemporary racial and religious extremism. Vivid Faces is an excellent book for anyone interested in Irish history or understanding the factors and mentalities that lead to intense periods of violence.

Radim Dragomaca, YPFP Vice President of Communications

Team of Teams by ret. General Stanley McChrystal is one of 2015’s most intersectional, must-read books, but also one that might have gone unnoticed by many foreign policy wonks. It is neither a memoir of General McChrystal’s time in Afghanistan, nor a military history of the conflict intended for a defense/military audience. Instead, the book is fundamentally about leadership, organizational transformation and management—fields of interest to leaders and practitioners across all sectors. The scope of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan over the last decade cannot be overstated in terms of manpower, funds, intersecting bureaucracies and stakes. The leadership and organizational management lessons to be gleaned at this incredibly challenging nexus are priceless, and General McChrystal has built his book around them. You needn’t be in a war zone or managing billions of dollars to learn from and apply the lessons of this book to corporate, non-profit or public administration leadership. Team of Teams is timely, well-written, and engaging; its points are often illustrated with fascinating anecdotes. Although 99.9 percent of this book’s readers will never face responsibility this great or of such deadly importance, all of us will walk away from this book with new ideas about how to make our organizations and our own leadership style more effective.

Belinda O’Donnell, YPFP Co-Chair of the Africa Discussion Group

My recommendation is JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War by Bruce Riedel. From the CIA’s efforts to train Tibetan insurgents in parachute skills in Colorado to early covert U.S. operations in Pakistan, this book provides a rapid introduction to some of the most under-appreciated details concerning the projection of U.S. power during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Bruce Riedel brings decades of experience as a South Asia specialist with the CIA to bear in examining a large number of now declassified documents, and it is often the seemingly peripheral and unexpected details that make this book stand out. Overall, JFK’s experiences navigating the mid-century ambitions of India and China during the Cold War offer an engaging look at the “past of the present” when it comes to contemporary U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

Michael Dworman, Staff Writer, Charged Affairs 

The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the underside of foreign policy. Adolf Tolkachev’s life was dominated by his long hatred of the Soviet system, yet he was deeply enmeshed within its sprawling military-industrial complex. Wanting to hurt the system as much as possible, Tolkachev offered what he could to the CIA, becoming the most valuable asset ever run by the Moscow station. Granted rare access to both the officers who ran the case and the operational cables between Moscow station and CIA headquarters, David Hoffman paints a detailed picture of the CIA’s efforts to work with and protect Tolkachev, while operating under the oppressive and ever-present eye of the KGB. While the tradecraft may seem like it could only come from a spy novel, this incredible story showcases the real-life bravery and determination of those fighting in the shadows.

Kirby Neuner, Staff Writer, Charged Affairs 

My book is The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill & the Responsibility to Protect by Michael W. Doyle. Building on such influential works as Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust War (1971) and, of course, J.S. Mill’s “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” (1859), Michael Doyle offers a distinctly modern take on the ethics and legality of foreign intervention. In this fascinating and timely text, Doyle weighs the once-sacrosanct concepts of national self-determination and state sovereignty against the myriad threats to humanitarian security that have emerged since the Cold War’s conclusion. Though he shares with Mill a belief in non-interventionism as the default foreign policy, Doyle acknowledges what the storied utilitarian has called “considerations paramount”: factors that justify a state’s decision to either override or disregard the non-interventionist norm. Indeed, these very considerations brought about the 2005 adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) doctrine, which affirms the international community’s obligation to intervene in defense of civilians suffering the horrors of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity. Doyle displays both a loyalty to non-interventionism and a Samantha Power-esque willingness to shed light on its historical failures (think Rwanda 1994), and his brilliantly nuanced interpretations of Mill’s seminal musings on the question remind us just how consequential its answer has become in today’s complex geopolitical climate.

Anna Prusa, Managing Editor, Charged Affairs

The Washington Dissensus: A Privileged Observer’s Perspective on US-Brazil Relations by former Brazilian Ambassador to the United States Rubens Barbosa (1999-2004) offers an insider’s perspective on the complicated relationship between Washington and Brasilia. Neither side is spared in this timely memoir: Barbosa criticizes both the United States’ superficial understanding of Latin America, and Brazil’s own muddled priorities when it comes to dealing with its neighbor to the north. Barbosas is perhaps most scathing in his assertion that Brazil’s foreign policy reorientation under the Lula administration—with its focus on building South-South ties—not only harmed Brazil’s relationship with the United States but also undermined Brazil’s quest for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Barbosa argues that the flawed bilateral relationship is the result of failings and miscommunications on both sides, but—ultimately—Washington Dissensus vividly shows just how complicated, messy, and politically-charged the foreign policy process can be.

Another fascinating book is Empire of Cotton (which was technically published at the very end of 2014). Written by Harvard historian Sven Beckert, the book traces the rise of cotton alongside the rise of the modern commercial world. Beckert argues that the rise of the cotton industry and its global trade gave rise to global capitalism, and his work does not shy away from the violent roots of the industry—slavery—and thus the violent roots of industrialization, which can still be seen today in the tragedies of the garment industries in Bangladesh and other countries across the globe. Although the text can be overly dense with facts and figures, Beckert offers a compelling argument that the history of cotton has left an enduring imprint on the global system it helped birth. Empire of Cotton is a must-read for anyone interested in the development of modern capitalism and commerce, as well as cotton’s enduring legacies of global inequality.

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