Will Inboden, blogger
Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age, by Francis Gavin (2012)
Almost seven decades into the nuclear age, we still know a lot less about nuclear weapons and foreign policy than we may think -- or at least that is one of several surprising and compelling arguments in Francis Gavin's new book Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America's Atomic Age. Much of the academic scholarship in this field has been dominating by political science, which in turn has focused either on abstract theories of nuclear use and non-use, or quantitative modeling that is methodologically esoteric and based on very limited data sets. To this intellectual milieu, Gavin (who in full disclosure is a colleague of mine at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law here at the University of Texas-Austin) brings instead the historian's method of archival research to his fascinating and impressive study. Using newly declassified documents, he opens an entirely new dimension to our understanding of nuclear statecraft, past and present. In the process this book challenges much of the received wisdom on nuclear history and statecraft, whether the "myth of flexible response," the illusory stability of the Cold War, or the various shibboleths held by all sides on the nonproliferation debate. As nuclear issues in places like North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan continue to dominate headlines and fill policymakers' inboxes today, Gavin's timely book brings welcome perspective and insight.
Clyde Prestowitz, blogger
Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance, by Willy Shih and Gary Pisano (2012)
This book is about the great importance of manufacturing for a nation's long-term prosperity. It particularly makes the point that many worker skills are learned on the job and that there is no substitute for manufacturing in learning certain critical skills that are applicable across a wide range of industries. Producing Prosperity further argues that R&D and innovation are disproportionately supported by manufacturing and that innovation is as much a matter of what happens on the factory floor as it is a matter of what happens in the research lab. The book undercuts a lot of conventional wisdom and orthodox policy thinking, particularly with regard to globalization and international trade.
Gordon Adams, NatSec columnist
The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, by David Unger (2012)
Unger's is yet another book about the expansion of the national security state in the United States since World War II and the extent to which we are just letting it happen, at the cost of our democracy and a sensible foreign policy. This trend has continued, inexorably, under both political parties. Republicans (except for Ron Paul and the libertarians) think it is the right thing to do. Democrats let the trend continue, either because they are liberal interventionists and the security state is a tool at hand or because they are afraid that they well be called weak on security. We are less secure as a result.
John Arquilla, NatSec columnist
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt (2012)
The increasing economic and military strength of China poses, to many observers, the principal strategic challenge of our time. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom suggests that the rise of China could have happened a century-and-a-half ago, when a rebel movement bent on modernization along Western lines very nearly toppled the aging Qing Dynasty. That it did not was largely due to British, and to some extent American, intervention in the war. The conflict is utterly shocking in its scale of destruction, with at least 20 million dead over a decade-plus of bitter fighting. Platt does very well in illuminating the broad sweep of this catastrophe; but he also pulls off something magical by telling this story through the eyes of a handful of principal players. In particular, the skillful military duel between Hong Rengan of the rebels and Zeng Guofan, a Confucian scholar turned soldier of the regime, is rendered with great verve. Neither can achieve a decisive advantage as the struggle rages back and forth along the Yangtze River. Their tale ends in irony, with Hong the liberal modernizer becoming the eventual victim of Western intervention. Today, leading powers are still worrying about a modernizing China -- a place where tensions with an aging ruling regime are also being played out. Let us hope the parallels are not too close.
Rosa Brooks, NatSec columnist
The Profession, by Steven Pressfield (2012)
What happens when a risk-averse and increasingly corporatized society confronts an ever-riskier world? In The Profession, novelist Steven Pressfield imagines a near future (2032) in which the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been succeeded by two decades of chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East and Central Asia. States, corporations, religious factions, and terrorists jostle for control of the region's oil, a dirty bomb has struck California, and Iran and Iraq have fought their third war. America, sick of the expense and bloodshed associated with inconclusive foreign conflicts, has largely outsourced its national security to high-tech private mercenary armies. "The president and Congress had at last found a means of projecting U.S. power that was (a) mission-effective, (b) cost-effective, and (c) did not run foul of the extreme risk aversion of the American people," writes Pressfield's narrator Gilbert "Gent" Gentilhomme, a former Marine now employed by Force Insertion, the world's largest private military force. Banks, oil companies and foreign states are also employing private armies: Force Insertion, for instance, has a contract with Exxon-Mobil and BP "for all of Western Iraq," in addition to numerous contracts with the US government. But as treacherous civilian leaders and an odd assortment of ‘investors' vie for dominance, Gent begins to suspect that he and his comrades are being manipulated. Ultimately, Gent finds himself torn between his deep personal loyalty to James Salter, the disgraced but charismatic former U.S. Marine General who runs Force Insertion, and his growing fear that Salter's disdain for his nominal "employers" could prove devastating for what little remains of American democracy. Pressfield is best known for his meticulously researched historical fiction (mostly set in ancient Greece), but in The Profession he paints a persuasive picture of a far from impossible future. From his richly imagined descriptions of just over-the-horizon military technologies to his matter of fact portrayal of war and death, the book is a chilling meditation on civil-military relations in a world in which the line between public and private has become irrevocably blurred. (Reposted with permission from the Highlands Forum.)
Amy Zegart, NatSec columnist
The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins (2009)
I should have read The Forever War when it came out in 2009, but in a way I'm glad I didn't. As Iraq and Afghanistan move from headlines to memories, Filkins offers a haunting, lasting portrait from the trenches. You can almost hear the bullets whizzing past, feel your heart racing during his danger-courting 5-mile runs through the streets of Baghdad, smell the rotting dog lying next to him the night he had to sleep outside in the street. And you can't help but sense the anguish Filkins, a correspondent for the New York Times when he reported the book, still feels over the death of a soldier who went first up the stairs to help him get a photograph for the paper. At a time when there's a national unspoken desire to forget Iraq and Afghanistan, Filkins helps us remember both conflicts and their human toll on everyone involved, including himself.
Unmaking the West: ‘What-If' Scenarios That Rewrite World History, edited by Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker (2006)
I wasn't much interested in another book about the rise of the West. But I am always interested in anything Phil Tetlock writes. Tetlock is one of the pioneers in understanding how cognitive psychology influences international relations. His work on expert political judgment -- which found that dart-throwing monkeys predict future outcomes about as well as experts -- is profound and important. And I say that despite the fact that I was one of the experts the monkeys probably beat. In Unmaking the West, Tetlock, Lebow, and Parker edit a series of essays about counterfactual reasoning. Their mission is the same as Stephen Jay Gould's -- reminding us, "Humans are here by the luck of the draw, not the inevitability of life's direction or evolution's mechanism." In social science, as well as evolutionary science, we tend to think the past is far more inevitable than it actually was. While the substantive focus of this book is challenging the idea that the rise of the West was somehow unavoidable, the real agenda is conceptual: reminding us of the dangers of hindsight bias and the need to think about thinking.