from The Water's Edge

Five Foreign Policy Books the Next President Should Read

MacLeod's used bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia . (Andy Clark/Courtesy Reuters)

January 20, 2016

MacLeod's used bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia . (Andy Clark/Courtesy Reuters)
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Inauguration Day is now exactly one year away. In 366 days—2016 is a Leap Year—one of the candidates now barnstorming Iowa and New Hampshire will take the oath of office. Everything will change the moment he, or she, says the constitutionally mandated words, "I do solemnly swear...." Campaigning is about promises; governing is about choices.

But making wise choices—and making sure they are carried out—is easier said than done. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates noted earlier this week, running a government is "different than business. It’s different than surgery. It’s different than anything else. It’s a skill set that you bring based on experience and based on dealing with other people.”

The challenge of making government work—and the consequences for getting it wrong—may be the greatest when it comes to foreign policy. Which is why I hope that in between giving speeches and plotting campaign strategy the candidates are reading widely on how to be effective foreign policy decision-makers. A lot of books can be helpful on that score. Here are five that I would recommend:

Robert M. Gates, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform From Fifty Years of Public Service. Gates knows a thing or two about U.S. foreign policy. He started out as an entry level analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, worked on the staff of the National Security Council, and eventually became director of Central Intelligence and then secretary of defense. When someone of Gates’s experience and accomplishments offers advice on how to make the federal bureaucracy work, you probably should listen.

Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Goldstein set out to understand why the United States went to war in Vietnam. In doing so, he deftly teased out six lessons that every president would be wise to heed. My favorite? “Conviction without rigor is a recipe for disaster.”

Morton Halperin and Priscilla Clapp with Arnold Kanter, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy. We like to imagine that presidents order and bureaucrats execute. But as Halperin, Clapp, and Kanter show, the compendium of departments, agencies, offices, and bureaus that make up the U.S. government often substitute their own interests, visions, and judgments for those of the White House. If presidents want the bureaucracy to do their bidding, they need to understand the myriad of ways it can frustrate their plans.

Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Foreign policy decision-making involves not just anticipating and reacting to the actions of other actors on the world stage but also to their intentions. The problem, as Jervis amply documents, is that leaders often misperceive what others are doing. Knowing the ways events can be misperceived doesn’t guarantee better choices, but it can help a president ask the right questions.

Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Everyone uses historical analogies. They are powerful tools for defining problems, identifying solutions, and winning arguments. The problem is they are frequently misused and abused. Not every negotiation is Munich, and not every use of military force is Vietnam. Neustadt and May offer guidance on how to use history wisely.

So these are my five choices. What are yours?

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