Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Drezner's Viral Challenge

Dan Drezner, in response to the idea that aspiring leaders should read Tom Friedman (could be worse, could be Robert Kaplan or Sam Huntington), has asked folks to suggest three books (or articles, I guess) that a President should read.  The last time I checked his comment thread was chock full of books that no policy-maker will ever read. Stephanie Carvin has a good list, Brian Rathbun mocks the exercise, and there will be many others soon.

I struggled with this, because most of my reading these days has not been too general but rather focused on things like Afghanistan, civil-military relations and the like.  But I do have some ideas, including resisting some temptations.

One is tempted to say Thomas Schelling's Strategy of Conflict (see this list).  The problem is that the abstract notion of bargaining between countries tends to lead to exaggerated senses of how responsive countries are to signalling, as compared to how responsive they are to domestic politics.  I really do find this book to be most useful, but I would recommend instead Kelly Greenhill's Weapons of Mass Migration.  I think this book is important and interest for several reasons:
  • First, as we are seeing with Libya, countries may be more responsive to conflicts when there is a significant threat of producing refugees.  This is not the first time, nor is it the last.  And with the strengthening of anti-immigration forces around the world, it is important to understand these kinds of dynamics.
  • Second, and more importantly, what Greenhill depicts in her book is the international equivalent of insurgency.  The bad guys (Milosevic, etc) have realized that the democracies of the world do not like refugees but have values that make it hard to deal with them.  So, creating migration crises is a weapon of the weak to use against the strong.  Thus, this book is useful for explaining to leaders of advanced democracies how their potential adversaries are clever, how they fight an asymmetric conflict, and the traps that are out there for the big democracies.  I simply see this kind of problem happening again and again, as weaker countries will not submit easily but instead convert their strong resolve into imaginative strategies that make it hard for the strong and the pure (relatively) to impose their will.  
The next temptation is to assign Thucydides or Morgenthau to teach prudence.  Not going to happen--big books that are dusty.  Instead, I would suggest Rajiv Chandrasekaren's Imperial Life in an Emerald City (Fiasco by Tom Ricks would also be good, but need shorter books for politicians).  It is a great book that details many of the problems with the Coalition Provisional Authority (Can't Produce Anything) that "ran" Iraq after the invasion.  Why?
  • It clearly teaches the consequences of arrogance.  The book is chock full of tales of people who thought they knew so much making dramatic and tragic mistakes.
  • It shows how complex the aftermath of a major military effort can be--far more complex than the battle itself.  In the book, each chapter is dedicated to a different element of the effort (water, power, markets, education, etc).  It would give an aspiring leader pause before dropping bombs somewhere, as the next steps are the most important and difficult ones.
Finally, I would be tempted to recommend Robert Gilpin's War and Change since it is just a great combination of security and economic stuff, a very fun realist that is subversively marxist, and ties together perceived and actual distributions of power. But again, it is older and perhaps too smart for today's politicians.  So, instead I will simply recommend  It has a nice blend of bloggers (especially Drezner, Ricks, and Lynch) that present sharp analyses, multiple points of view (which leaders need more than anything else), and the right dose of snark.  Perhaps this last one is a dodge, as I have hard time thinking of a good book that blends international political economy and security in a digestible form.

What do my readers suggest?


ADTS said...

Anything in the Cornell Series is too long and too technical.

Gilpin, too, is too technical.

I've posted my responses at Abu M. I'm with him in that FA/FP offer the best reading for policymakers. You can read Goldstone on Egypt or the Arab Spring instead of his academic work. Isn't that superior to reading his work (i.e., book) on revolutions or Skocpol's for the non-academically inclined, who have time constraints and no interest in the state as an autonomous actor?

Maybe the Monkey Cage is a good mix of academic work designed for a - more or less - generalist audience?

I can't think of a good primer on IR, while I've been able to think of a generalist book or two for CP. I wonder why.


Rick Geissal said...

In line with your recommendation re "the consequences of arrogance," I would suggest one of the books about the disaster of American involvement in Viet-Nam - long enough ago not to infringe on current problems and personalities, clear enough in its lessons re arrogance and certainty. Leaders need to learn about mindsets, not so much about specifics, because the particular problems they will face are not predictable. Ask LBJ.