Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Books: 2016

I present my favorite reads of 2016. Since I only read 4 books released last year, I will simply include in my list books that I read. In total, I finished 34 books and started many more.

6: The Way of the Knife:: the CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (2013) Mark Mazzetti, reporter for The New York Times

This book, by Pulitzer-prize winning Mark Mazzetti, has astonishing anecdotes, literally, on every page. I had my nephew pick a number from page one through 327 and voila – “two hundred” he says. “OSS founder William Donovan was so despondent that President Truman had not named him the first director of central intelligence he decided to set up an intelligence operation of his own. During business trips to Europe he collected information about Soviet activities from American ambassadors and journalists and scouted for possible undercover agents.” When President Truman was made aware of such private shenanigans, he was mad, “calling him a prying S.O.B.” One example from one random page, and it is a good one. I read this book along the way of researching for my final analysis of President Obama’s counterterrorism (CT) policy and the most pertinent quote from the president himself was: “The C.I.A. gets what it wants.” My question is: what president has skirted the power of CIA the most? A muckraking funny-if-it-wasn’t- true expose on the CIA. One con would be that it’s anecdote heavy and hard to pull together a comprehensive understanding of the complex-nature of Intelligence work, the CIA, and the various actors, individuals and states.

5:  Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016)
Branko Milanovic, Senior Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center

A fresh, updated accounting on what we know about macroeconomics and what this portends for the future. Milanovic, reforms a classic theoretical understanding of inequality – the Kuznets curve – and coins the Kuznets wave. Succinctly put, inequality rises as economies develop yet the curve flattens out as education, for example spreads. Milanovic adds more lines to the curve and argues that inequality starts to increase once again in developed countries for various reasons, such as high-skilled and information-based job growth. This book is about (1) the rise of the global middle class; (2) the stagnation of the developed world’s middle class; (3) the rise of the global 1%. His prediction is gloomy: we will most likely see increased inequality because the current global climate to tackle this problem is wanting and the task arduous and global governance is limited. “Social separatism” is increasing and this portends a precarious future in our ever-globalizing world.

4: The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (2012)
Thomas Borstelmann, a Distinguished Professor of Modern World History at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska

I keep trying to formulate exactly when much of the world took a right-wing authoritarianism and extreme form; look at photos of Afghanistan in the 1950s-1960s for an example of what I’m conjuring up. I keep getting to 1979. Well, before said year the 1970s was a fascinating decade that so many positive strides regarding civil rights for black Americans and also women. Income inequality started rising precipitously for the developed world in the middle of the decade and the first Islamic revolution of the modern era happened, when the Shah in Iran was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This global history, which really is American-centric, is a fantastic read. I think about this book all of the time. For readers of contemporary history, this is a good one that I stumbled upon while perusing the “sale” section at my local library.

3: The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (2011)
Dani Rodrik, the Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

We read this book in my proseminar in globalization and out of the ten books we read, this book warranted the most discussion and “thumps up” bar none. Rodrik brilliantly excoriates, at times but with minimal vitriol – his fellow economists and their religious adherence to the Washington Consensus. He provides data to support his argument that some sort of embedded liberalism or a updated version of Bretton Woods is the most secure, fair, popular, and effective way for states to enter the developed strata of states. It’s in this book that he presents the trillemma: you can pick two, but only two. We can either live in a world of deep globalization and democracy; deep globalization and global governance; or global governance and democracy. Rodrik inclines

2: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis: Second Edition (1999)
Graham Allison, Philip Zelikow, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Department of History at University of Virginia, respectively

This essential read for IR students is one I am grateful was assigned; I used the Rational Actor Model and the Governmental Politics model to compare the president’s counterterrorism policy for my capstone research paper. Along with Organizational Structure Model, these 3 frameworks are theoretical kingpins. The case study analyzed was the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was brilliantly done. Essence became the bedrock textbook and the impetus for opening the JFK School of Government at Harvard. If you want to know exactly how the insider process happens, and the complexity and complications of hundreds (now thousands) of actors involved in decisions, this is a great start. A foundational IR text from a heavyweight scholar, Allison, who has since penned many more books that are worth reading.

1: The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of Global Order (1996)
Samuel P. Huntington, co-founder of Foreign Policy; Professor at Harvard; president of the American Political Science Association (APSA)

I’m linking to my blog post where I opined my feelings of this work. Seminal work here.

Best book released in 2016

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror
Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, NSA, and intelligence of the Air Force

Hayden has worked in the U.S. Intelligence community for decades and his part-memoir and part-current affairs review of the world we live in was my favorite memoir I read this year. For an intelligence official, the work was deeply honest, fair, and wide-ranging. The impression you get is of a big mind with big ideas and even bigger secrets; at once, a patriot who wishes he could tell Americans more but he can’t, for their security. I have been going through government official memoirs – I’ve only read a few so far – and this might be my favorite, though Chollet’s and Brooks’ are close. (I haven’t finished Brooks’ yet therefore it can’t be on this list but it’s damn good.)

I’m looking forward to reading so many more works next year – I hope to even finish listening to Moby-Dick!

When Being Small is a Plus

In international relations, being powerful is, according to many realists, the only metric that matters. Forget your morals, ideals, strategies, etc, what actually matters is pure power. In Nye’s brilliant The Future of Power, he explains how things aren’t that simple.

There are ways that a smaller state, or power, can use its subservient position vis-à-vis a larger friend, actually can gain power or can use that position in the relationship to it’s advantage. While reading today, I was struck by an complimentary example – evidence – of this very idea: Chechnya.

In “The Chechen Gambit,” Tatia Lemondzhava, energy analyst from the World Bank, writes about how Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is playing his subservient role to his advantage. Kadyrov in, perhaps, a performative public propaganda-dance announced that he will not run for re-election coming up when his term ends on April 5. The author writes that Kadyrov “has consistently used the political capital he has amassed since assuming office to bargain for dividends from the Kremlin.” You see, Lemondzhava’s point here is that Kadyrov doesn’t actually intend to step down. What he wants to happen is to force Russian president Vladimir Putin to go on-the-record and, essentially, beg and/or urge Kadyrov to reconsider.

This is a brilliant gambit.

Putin’s hands are tied because for the last decade or so he has relied on Kadyrov to maintain order in the Sunni North of Chechnya. The analyst reports that in a time of austerity, Kadyrov’s region is the sole region to receive more as opposed to less aid in the recent years. Kadyrov’s supporters planned on taking to the streets regarding his decision; they started a social media campaign, too. Kadyrov urged his supporters to be patient: Putin will come to the rescue, guys, trust me, is the implication.

“The largest state does not always win in the manipulation of economic interdependence,” writes Nye. Kadyrov’s move is equivalent to threatening retaliatory actions, in a way. It’s also an example of realpolitik, perhaps: is the alternative worse? Putin will most definitely answer with the affirmative: yes, indeed, this is why I will come out and urge Kadyrov to stay. This is not zero-sum, of course. Russian benefits by not having to deal with potential upheaval. Chechya retains it’s popular leader. Kadyrov gains even more prestige.

I encourage readers to read the whole article as it’s a fascinating example of how a lesser power who completely relies on a large power can use it’s seemingly subservient position to it’s advantage.

The Future of Power

I think many conflicting, and seemingly incompatible phenomenon can exist – can be true – at the same time. I just read a book that reveals that nominal paradox in great detail. “The world is neither unipolar, multipolar, nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time,” ends the highly compelling The Future of Power.

The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye, Distinguished Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is quite encompassing and packs a punch that is more than it’s relatively short page length (234 pages). This book is an ambitious work. Dissecting the power zeitgeist in a hyper-globalized world is not an easy task. In particular, Nye examines America’s stature and role in the world. In examining the future of power relations between, within, and among states, NGOS, and individuals, Nye paints a complicated and complex picture.

Power is transitioning away from the U.S. but it is not going to one other country or entity; and it certainly isn’t transitioning away rapidly at all. No one country will be more economically powerful than the U.S. for the next 25 years. Further: the next leading power is the EU which is comprised of 28, or so, allies. The U.S. is going to be fine, especially if the U.S. “rediscover[s] how to be a smart power.” What is smart power?

Smart Power

Nye defines and redefines and references many international relations (IR) terms such as hegemony; soft power; and realism. He coins – or effectively brings to the market of ideas at the very least – a new term for power-measuring in the twenty-first century: smart power. Smart power is “liberal realism.” Smart power, for the U.S., is the “understanding of the strength and limits of American power.” Moreover: The U.S. should “develop an integrated grand strategy that combine[s] hard power with soft attractive power.” Finally, we should lead by example and “encourage liberal democracy and human rights at home and abroad where feasible at reasonable levels of cost,” that also “encourage[s] the gradual evolution of democracy but in a manner that accepts the reality of diversity.” Got it?

Nye likened the state of power relations to a 3D chess game. Dimension 1: Interstate military power is highly concentrated in the U.S. Dimension 2: Interstate economic power “is distributed in a multipolar manner among the U.S., the EU, Japan, and the BRICs.” Finally, Dimension 3: “Issues power such as climatic, terror, and pandemics is “highly diffused.”

According to the State Department, smart power is “the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”

Nye does a great job of highlighting real examples and evidence of arbitrary and circular understandings or ideas. Nye also gives examples of how the world stage is also comprised of other actors, such as corporations and individuals, that now wield power.

Can smaller states utilize smart power?
Look at Singapore engaging in “active sponsorship of diplomatic activities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” while also becoming a regional military power.

An example of a non-government individual of having and using soft power? Nye’s example: In 2007, film producer Steven Spielberg, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, “sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao to use its influence to push Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.” It worked when “years of diplomacy could not.” Spielberg recognized the position China was in, and succeeded in his attempt at persuasion. That is soft power in an individual.

I think the best part of the book is just how much importance Nye allows to the Information Revolution. I certainly agree with this. Globalization is an information-based creation. A major reason we are seeing this power diffusion is the Internet. A tension exists between privacy and security; and there is a really good chapter regarding the cyberworld contained within this book.

We are just now really beginning to understand the battle we are in regarding the cyber realm. The Internet is Real.

Compare/Contrast – Moon & Sun:

In 2010, one poll found that 61% of poll respondents thought the country was in decline and only 19% trusted the government. …Over the past few decades, public confidence has dropped in half for major institutions.” [Nye Jr., 2011]


75% of Americans feel connected to their communities and say the quality of life there is excellent or good. According to a Pew poll, 111 million Americans say they volunteer their time to solve problems in their communities in the previous 12 months, and 60 million volunteered on a regular basis. 40 % said working together with others in their community was the most important thing they could do.” [Nye Jr., 2011]


Nye’s conclusion is an slightly optimistic one for us: “The United States is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome or even to be surpassed by another state, including China.” He continues: This is “not a narrative of decline.” Power is always shifting and evolving (and devolving, perhaps?) and American hegemony may be a thing of the past. Power transition is happening but not as rapid or in one direction as many argue. Perhaps China will be the next Soviet or Japan: the supposed next great power that settles for regional dominance.

As a careful analyst as he is, he knows the future is not predetermined: “There are a range of possible futures, not one.”

Americans might think that America is entering an era of decay but America is still quite the world power; just not quite as powerful as in the past, that is all. I must say that this book holds up remarkable well for being 5 years old. The U.S. dollar is still king. Check out the great Milton Ezrati on the primacy of the economic power of the U.S. in The National Interest. The U.S. dollar “is by far the world’s most traded currency, involved in 87 percent of all global currency exchanges, up from 85 percent in 2010,” in 2015 he writes. “For now the dollar remains supreme, ” exclaims the economist. America is the strongest individual country in the world.

Nye’s book is a must read for students of international affairs; in particular, for those interested in America’s role in the world; for those interested in China’s rise; and last but not least, those interesting in theory. You can’t understand the world, unless you understand power in all of its multifaceted faces.

Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World

Book review: Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (2015) by the president of Eurasia Groups Ian Bremmer (PhD; Stanford)

I find NYU political scientist and Time magazine editor-at-large Ian Bremmer fascinating. He is able to hold a conversation about modern affairs in a way that is authoritative yet casual and analytically brilliant and intellectually challenging. His latest book, his ninth, is his first book completely focusing on the foreign policy strategy of the U.S. I also vehemently (often, but not always) disagree with a lot of what he says; I am drawn to thinkers who challenge, provoke, and simply, to those who I disagree with. I believe this is how we grow as a thinker and is how we understand other perspectives.

Up front, he presents an interesting argument that Russia is not really a serious threat to the U.S. but that the U.S.-EU relationship could become tense due to Europe needing Russian financial customers, energy, and defense contracts. A provocative claim and one backed up with empirical data. The U.S. trades with Switzerland and Belgium, for example, more than with Russia (U.S. Census). Bremmer is worried about China who sometime during the next decade will become the largest economy but will still be “poor, potentially unstable, and authoritarian.” Whether we are talking about Russia aggression; or Chinas’ rise; or global warming (which Bremmer does not cover really at all, to my dismay); or the threat of terrorism; possible disease epidemics; or the refugee crises, America needs to choose a coherent strategy. Bremmer argues there are 3 potential choices.

Incoherent America (1990-2015)
Bremmer’s main argument is that post-Cold War through to this year, America has not had a coherent foreign policy strategy and the sole remaining superpower made mostly bumbling mistakes built on ignorance, hubris, and blurry vision and spotty goals like the Somalian intervention (Clinton); expanding NATO (Clinton/Bush 43); and the War on Terror + Bush tax cuts (Bush43/Obama). On Obama, Breemer argues that in his first term, he had a more coherent strategy but that quickly dissolved and “President Obama refused to commit to any foreign policy framework to help him make difficult decisions.” This brings us to 2015, the 2016 presidential campaigns, and the future. We need a strategy, not just tactical ideas but a coherent strategy to guide the country and to signal to the world our strengths and values. Bremmer often meets with foreign ministers from allies and enemies alike and they all say: we don’t know what America stands for. This is a problem.

Option #1: Independent America
Here Bremmer delineates the disaster that has been the rise of the military-industrial complex and the costs, human and fiscal, of American acting as the one true superpower. The author cites a 2013 Harvard study showing that when all is said and done, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost our country nearly $7 trillion. Americans in hundreds of polls have shown our disapproval of national building, war, “free trade” deals like NAFTA, and so on and so on. Americans are fatigued and understand that we need to nation-build here at home. Independent here refers to the fact that American citizens want America to make decisions that prioritize our interests; not our allies or our neighbors even. We need to go our separate ways and to worry about our needs such as infrastructure, education, and caring for our veterans now they are back home from a decade of war. This strategy is bolstered by being supported by the American public in poll-after-poll-after-poll.

This brings us to Bremmers’ – or Americas’ rather – second option.

Option #2: Moneyball America
Moneyball Americans view Independent America as isolationists. This view of America sees that we “must lead coalitions of the willing,” and “U.S. foreign policy must promote and protect global growth, both by minimizing the risk of war and by giving as many countries as possible a stake in stability through commerce and investment.” Moneyballers, based on the Oakland A’s famous baseball approach, “rel[y] on a cold-blooded, interest-driven approach to maximize the return on the taxpayer’s investment.” Value over values. We need to “maximize returns on minimal investment.” This is a business-minded approach. We should view foreign policy like businesses view venture projects. Regarding the three leading Middle East powers, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, we should – in my loose summation – play all three cards. Or: American should use its hand to balance powers. Don’t get caught up in too many nets; have an exit strategy.

Option #3 Indispensable America
This final option is probably the option that most Americans are familiar with. America must lead. America is the shining light on the hill. America is the best-est most brightest country in the world. I’m being a little breezy here. On a serious note: this option is realistic. In Bremmers’ words through the glasses of a proponent: “Americans can only be more secure in a world where democracy, rule of law, access to information, freedom of speech, and human rights are universally recognized and protected, because these values create lasting strength, resilience, security, and wealth in the societies that establish and protect them.” Basically someone must lead and that someone has to be the U.S., according to this viewpoint. Regarding debt and money: “The United States can pay its debts by simply printing more money.” This is probably the sentence I agree with the most in the entire book, but that’s for a different time perhaps. In summation, this strategy is the most historically and realistically coherent, in my opinion.

What strategy should we choose?
In the beginning of the book, Ian produces a 10-question quiz and he asks the reader to take it. After each chapter/strategy-option, he reprints the quiz with highlighted answers based on the arguments of each option. According to the questions (an ex: U.S. spy capabilities: a) will always be a double-edged sword. b. Threaten our privacy. c. Are vital for protecting America. I chose a, by the way which is in alignment with Independent America, for example.) I have a mumbled complicated and overlapping (read: non-strategy strategy) answer. 10% of me is an Independent America; 50% of the time I agree with Moneyball America; 30% of the time I align with the Indispensables.

This is interesting because while reading the book, I mostly agreed with Independent America as the most wise choice of the three; followed closely by the Indispensable chapter. In reality, the way Moneyball was presented, I do sort of think about problems in my life and in politics in this way. So what did the author choose? Professor Bremmer actually chose Independent America as the wisest choice; he does so reluctantly mind you.

This book is a fantastic primer and summary of the world that awaits us. As someone who is graduating with a B.A. in political science in just a few months, I knew all of the facts presented here; I know the arguments, history, and context and therefore, I could have used a more complex book. I definitely think climate change is the existential issue of our lives; thus I always want climate change discussed more. Always. However, I am not casting aspersions. This book is great for all Americans to read. Whether you think nation-states are inherently bad and you are an anarchist or whether or not you are a international institutionalist who thinks nation-states should yield to a world government, Superpower is written as the world is, not as any of us want it to be. America will be the world’s most powerful country, in many ways, for the foreseeable future. I recommend this book to political science students; government and business leaders; and all other engaged and responsible citizens across the country.