Each year CFR.org managing editor Bob McMahon and I take a break from the news on The World Next Week to record a special episode of our summer reading recommendations. That episode is now live. This year, our colleague Carla Anne Robbins came back on the podcast to share some of her picks. Carla is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR and the Marxe faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Carla knows a thing or two about good writing. Before joining the Council, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and before that the chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. We all agreed to share a foreign-policy related book we think everyone should read and a lighter pick we think will be good for filling the long summer days.
Foreign Policy Reads
Carla kicked things off by recommending The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, by Zachary Carter. Keynes is perhaps the most consequential economist who ever lived. He not only wrote one of the defining books on economics—as the term “Keynesianism” indicates—he helped shape British economic policymaking for decades. Carter tells the story of Keynes’s life in a way that appeals to more than just academic economists. Indeed, Carla said The Price of Peace is probably the closest to a “beach book” a history of economics could get. By the way, Carla had planned to suggest Jill Lepore’s excellent history, These Truths: A History of the United States. But that happened to be one of my recommendations for last summer’s special episode.
Bob recommended Missionaries, by Phil Klay. The novel is set in Colombia in the months preceding the country’s 2016 vote on the historic peace agreement to settle the half-century-long conflict between the government and the Marxist FARC guerillas. Missionaries follows the intersecting lives of four characters—a U.S. Army Special Forces medic, a foreign correspondent, an ex-paramilitary fighter, and a Colombian lieutenant colonel—to explore the effects of U.S. policy in Colombia and the human cost of modern warfare. Bob said the novel gave him a deeper appreciation for a civil war he knew little about. Bob’s reading choice prompted Carla to recommend Kings of Cocaine, which her husband Guy Gugliotta cowrote with Jeff Leen. It traces the rise of the brutal and lucrative Colombian Medellín drug cartel in the 1980s.
I went with Nicole Perlroth’s new book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race. Given the deeply polarized state of U.S. politics at the moment, I had intended to recommend a book about America’s founding. I have been reading a lot recently about the early years of the American republic, including Pauline Maier's Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution and Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas and the Making of the Constitution. But because Bob and I discuss political divisions so frequently on The World Next Week and because ransomware attacks like the Colonial Pipeline hack have been dominating the news over the last month, I went with This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Perlroth, who covers cyber issues for the New York Times, draws on more than three hundred interviews that she conducted over seven years with government officials, hackers, computer scientists, mercenaries, and more. Reviewers have applauded This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends as “possibly the most important book of the year.”
“Lighter” Summer Reads
Carla looks forward to picking up Cuban author Leonardo Padura’s gritty Mario Conde crime novels. Padura recently published the ninth book in the detective’s story, The Transparency of Time. Carla, who reported from Cuba at the end of the Cold War, decided to start the series after watching the TV adaptation of the first four books, which she thought accurately depicted Cuban life and society. (The series unfortunately left Netflix last year.) She added that her husband is a “huge fan” of Padura’s more literary works like The Man Who Loved Dogs, a novel about the assassination of Leon Trotsky. Carla noted that it is remarkable that the Cuban government allows Padura to continue writing even though he doesn’t always paint the Cuban revolution in a positive light.
Bob broke form by offering two recommendations. His first was Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks’s debut novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, which came out in 2002. It follows a housemaid who lives in a remote seventeenth-century English village hit by the bubonic plague. The outbreak forces the villagers to wrestle with faith, science, and human connection. Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it? Bob’s second recommendation was a volume of essays by Czech playwright Vaclav Havel titled, Living in Truth. The essay “The Power of the Powerless” in particular stuck with Bob. Havel describes how authoritarian regimes use their control of information to take and hold power. Ultimately, however, the power lies with the people to throw off the “hypnotic charm” of a stable life that regimes often promise amid crisis. Some food for thought in our current era of nationalist populism and democratic regression.
With Bob having broken format, I followed suit. A longstanding rule of our summer reading episodes is not to recommend books our colleagues have written. That prohibition doesn’t extend to their family members. So my first recommendation was Clare Sestanovich’s collection of short stories, Objects of Desire, which Knopf is set to release at the end of the month. If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Clare’s father is senior fellow Steve Sestanovich, a frequent guest on The President’s Inbox. Clare writes beautifully and powerfully, as you can see in the two short stories she has published in The New Yorker. (You can read them here and here.) With my second recommendation I went with John McWhorter’s new book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. My bookshelves are stocked with books like Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, and William Strunk Jr.’s classic The Elements of Style that discuss the art of writing and the evolution of the English language. So I was delighted to add McWhorter’s book on profanity to my collection. I’m a third of the way through it and can say it’s funny, informative, and thought provoking. I would tell you more, but gosh darn it, this is a family-friendly blog.
To be fair to Carla, I invited her to offer a second “lighter” recommendation. She said she plans to revisit John le Carré’s terrific George Smiley spy series, often called the “Karla trilogy,” this summer. Le Carré, who died last year, used his novels to expose the seamy side of espionage. The BBC series starring Alec Guinness is well worth a watch, too. Carla said that she is envious when she meets people who have not yet read the Karla trilogy because they will get to experience them for the first time. As someone who blew off classes as a teenager to read all three books, I heartily agree.
Other Books Worth Reading
The World Next Week’s rule about not recommending books our CFR colleagues write doesn’t extend to The Water’s Edge. So if you want to learn more about foreign policy, check out these recent books by my colleagues—or in two cases because of the Biden administration’s recruiting efforts, former colleagues:
- Stephen Biddle, Nonstate Warfare: The Military Methods of Guerillas, Warlords, and Militias.
- John Campbell, Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World.
- Philip H. Gordon, Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.
- Yanzhong Huang, Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State.
- Charles A. Kupchan, Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.
- Gayle Lemmon Tzemach, Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice.
- Mira Rapp-Hooper, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First Century Order, coauthored with Rebecca Lissner.
- Ray Takeyh, The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.
If you don’t own a hard copy of Richard N. Haass’s excellent foreign policy primer, The World: A Brief Introduction, it is now out in paperback.
And if you haven’t done so already, you should consider putting in an advance order for Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone’s Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Human Rights. It’s a great book. And it’s not just me saying it. Publishers Weekly calls it “an eye-opening global tour of women’s activism in the wake of the #MeToo movement … Readers will be galvanized by these detailed portraits of bravery, creativity, and persistence in the struggle for women’s rights.” And Kirkus Reviews says it is “an inspiring overview of burgeoning women’s movements … A fresh perspective on continued challenges to women’s lives.”
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.