Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts 2023 Holiday Book Recommendations

Carol Rollie Flynn

Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts. This book is not the usual celebrity fare—Petraeus knows and lived this stuff—at least the latter wars covered—and military historian Andrew Roberts gives it additional intellectual heft. You can also dip in and out wherever you want and I found some of the lesser known conflicts such as the Malaya Emergency and the de-colonization conflicts particularly interesting.  

Robert Kaplan

Dubliners, James Joyce. This is an astonishing collection of short stories that Joyce completed in his mid-twenties, yet the effect of the prose is as if a much older and mature person wrote it. Dubliners concludes with “The Dead,” arguably the greatest short story written in the English language. Dubliners is also more accessible and less abstract than Joyce’s later works.

James Ryan 

Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process, Edward Said. Why did the 1993 Oslo Accords fail to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to a peaceful resolution? Was it doomed from the start? You can scarcely do better to understand the underlying problems that led to the violence we have seen in Gaza and across Israel/Palestine than this collection of essays by Edward Said. The book collects op-eds and essays first published in Arabic for Arab audiences in the two years after the signing of the Oslo Accords in the fall of 1993, and includes an incisive preface by Said’s close friend and confidant, Christopher Hitchens. Many may be surprised at the frankness with which Said addresses the failures of Palestinian leadership in this process from the standpoint of an engaged participant in the movement, rather than that of a cultural critic and intellectual gadfly. If nothing else, it is a window into the public and political life of a figure who might otherwise be known as a paragon of the ivory tower. 

Michael Beckley

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, John Darwin. An intricate history of the Hapsburgs, Ottomans, Mughals, Manchus, British, Japanese, Nazis, and Soviets, among others, that shows how the empire-building of the past created the world we know today.

Nikolas Gvosdev

Material World: The Six Raw Materials that Shape Modern Civilization, Ed Conway. It is a look at our need for salt, oil, sand, iron, lithium and copper—and discusses many of the topics critical to national security for the twenty-first century—from the food-water-energy nexus of the trilemma, to supply chains and resource dependencies for high-technology goods, and the intersection between the corporate/business networks and governments to get these critical elements.

Charles Ray

Ethical Dilemmas and the Practice of Diplomacy, Charles Ray. Published in 2017, this book is a discussion of the minefield of ethical decision making that American diplomats have to face on a daily basis as they implement US foreign policy abroad and at home.

Robert Hamilton

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Svetlana Alexievich. This book is a key to greater understanding of the impact of the Soviet experience on Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union today. It’s based on dozens of interviews with people who lived through the Soviet era, from ordinary people to people who wielded power. What comes through clearly and poignantly is how those who lived through the Soviet Union can acknowledge the trauma of the experience, yet still be nostalgic for it. I’ve long been skeptical of dispensing with the term “post-Soviet” too quickly, because I think that in doing so, we risk failing to understand the depth and duration of its impact. This book brings that impact home in a way no other book I’ve read has.

Natalia Kopytnik

Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, Slavenka Drakulić. This evocative collection of essays is a follow up from Drakulić’s original 1996 Café Europa which examined a new Europe emerging after the collapse of the communist bloc. Through vignettes of daily life in Eastern Europe over the past three decades, Drakulić offers a glimpse into what the former communist world looks like today. The stories are both poignant and full of humor, illuminating both the pressing socio-economic problems of the region, but also the hopes, fears, and dreams of its residents. Europe, Drakulić writes, may not have fixed geographical borders, but its mental ones can be robust. Between history and fantasy, Europe is many things to many people. My take? I don’t think it’s an accident that the author chose to include “how to survive” in the title. Recent events have shown that, real or imagined, Europe remains an idea many are still willing to fight for.

Thai-Binh Elston

The Border, Erika Fatland. Being Russia’s neighbor has never been easy. In The Border, Erika Fatland takes us on an epic journey through each of Russia’s fourteen neighbors starting in North Korea and ending in Norway. This stupendous piece of writing is part travel guide, part memoir, and part history book, and the author excels in every category.

Ann Hart

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Daniel Mendelsohn. Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir is a beautiful reflection on Homer’s The Odyssey, enlivened by the author teaching a Bard College class on the classic. Mendelsohn’s father wanted to take the course and tried (unsuccessfully) to stay silent as an auditor. The classic journey of Telemachus searching for Odysseus after ten years apart at war is enriched by Mendelsohn’s memories of his childhood with a powerful father and navigating their world as adults—including a trip to the Greek isles together, retracing the epic’s destinations.

Shane Mason

When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance, Michael S. Neiberg. This book completely changed the way I think about World War II, Transatlantic relations, and America’s place in the world. Michael Neiberg, a professor at the US Army War College, makes a persuasive case that it was the fall of France, and not the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that shocked America into mobilizing for a global war and forever changed US grand strategy. That Nazi Germany could so quickly defeat the French army and dominate continental Europe was simply unimaginable, and American officials were stunned by this new sense of insecurity. Never again would US policymakers willingly rely on a third party to secure a vital national interest. 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

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