Reads on History, Foreign Policy, Technology


With the holidays fast approaching, Foreign Policy asked our columnists and staff writers to recommend books that are best read with a cup of mulled wine by the fire. From a foreign-policy-adjacent fantasy novel to an exposé of one of the world’s biggest financial scandals, these page turners will make perfect gifts for international relations buffs of all stripes.

Robert Jackson Bennett (Crown, 512 pp., $18, May 2019, paperback)

I picked up Foundryside to escape to a world filled with thievery and magic and all the wondrous discoveries I have yet to find in my Washington, D.C., apartment. Yet Robert Jackson Bennett’s world of ruthless merchant houses has more echoes with the pitfalls of 21st-century governance than I expected, as they seek to control the most coveted—and dangerous—of resources: technology.

When a lowly thief accidentally steals a key named Clef (yes, it has a name), she quickly realizes that the object is sentient—and that more of her world is being run by artificial intelligence than she thought. Only later does she realize that this technology has become more powerful than its creators imagined. The book reminds us that invention does not stop when architects put down their tools. If that sounds too close to home as global powers rush to develop AI, all I can say is you’re in good company.

Alexandra Sharp, FP’s World Brief writer

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts
Joshua Hammer (Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $18, April 2017, paperback)

Late this summer, my 18-year-old daughter, who rarely does not have a book in her hand, handed me journalist Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and said, “Daddy, I think you will like this book. You should read it.” The kid was not wrong.

Hammer has written a badass book, which tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, a Malian archivist who—along with others he enlisted over the years—saved Islamic texts and other manuscripts that had been hidden across communities in the Sahara for hundreds of years. The job was challenging enough to begin with, but it became much harder after Islamist extremists began their push to take over the Sahel in the mid-2000s. But I don’t want to give too much away: The Bad-Ass Librarians is a page turner. Read it.

—Steven A. Cook, FP columnist

Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900
Stephen R. Bown (Thomas Dunne Books, 336 pp., $32.50, December 2010)

As admiration for—and anger toward—U.S. technology companies grows around the world, Stephen R. Bown’s book Merchant Kings is an enlightening read. Bown takes us back to what he calls the “age of heroic commerce”—an era when a handful of companies transformed geoeconomics, including the English East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Russian American Company.

Bown’s lucid account of the ambitious men who led these companies and their ruthless reign over vast swaths of the world in the colonial era helps us reflect on the extraordinary power of “company rule” today from the likes of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Tesla, as well as the widespread political efforts to limit the power of the so-called tech bros at their helm.

C. Raja Mohan, FP columnist

The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA
Liza Mundy (Crown, 480 pp., $32.50, October 2023) 

From the CIA’s early days, a cadre of unsung heroes helped build the agency into the premier spy institution it is today. The Sisterhood by journalist Liza Mundy tells the tale of those trailblazing female spies, who got none of the glory—and often none of the pay. They fought sexism in a male-dominated institution that could wrap its mismanagement and misdeeds in secrecy, all while helping to secure major intelligence that allowed Washington to gain an edge against its enemies in the Cold War and beyond.

The sections profiling the all-female teams that caught one of the CIA’s most notorious double agents for the Soviet Union and hunted down Osama bin Laden are particularly compelling. Mundy has crafted an eminently readable narrative that gives new details and insights on intelligence operations, with takeaways that are relevant today as U.S. national security institutions continue to grapple with chronic issues of diversity and discrimination.

Robbie Gramer, FP’s diplomacy and national security reporter

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Díaz (Riverhead Books, 340 pp., $28, September 2007)

Growing up is never easy, but it’s especially turbulent for Oscar de León, the devastatingly pure, science fiction-loving teenager at the center of Dominican American writer Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

As Oscar struggles to find his place in New Jersey, we learn that his problems are far bigger than just his personal woes: His family believes they have been haunted by the fukú, a powerful curse, since they lived in the Dominican Republic under the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. What unfolds is a spellbinding, fast-paced tale about growing up and the immigrant experience, told through hilarious prose overflowing with personality and spirit.

Christina Lu, FP reporter

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
George Packer (Knopf, 608 pp., $30, May 2019)

George Packer’s Our Man is a perfect companion for foreign-policy wonks this holiday season. Richard Holbrooke, a diplomatic genius and extraordinarily infuriating person, is a compelling subject, and Packer is one of the United States’ finest nonfiction writers. Our Man traces the career of Holbrooke, who began his professional life representing the United States as a development worker in Southeast Asia and went on to serve as an advisor to Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, a Balkan mediator, an ambassador to Germany, an ambassador to the United Nations, and much else (including managing editor of Foreign Policy).

But Holbrooke never got the job he really wanted: secretary of state. He was simply too unorthodox, flamboyant, and—as Our Man chronicles—too dismissive of others. Our Man is more than a biography. It’s an account of the U.S. foreign-policy crew Holbrooke represented: people who had lived abroad and had a burning interest in those living in places outside Washington. I struggle, alas, to think of who the current Holbrookes might be.

Elisabeth Braw, FP columnist

Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Paul Scharre (W. W. Norton & Company, 496 pp., $32.50, February 2023)

Artificial intelligence has dominated global discourse and my beat at Foreign Policy in the past year. Countless words have been spilled on how it will transform geopolitics (especially the U.S.-China relationship), how it could reshape economies and societies, who is best poised to take advantage of the current moment, and how to mitigate AI’s risks.

In Four Battlegrounds, Paul Scharre—who also wrote the lead essay for our Summer 2023 issue on AI—offers a clear-eyed look at many of these questions. His book also provides a good framework for policy wonks to think about the impact of AI in a way that cuts through the hype as well as the fear.

Rishi Iyengar, FP’s global technology reporter

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe

Milan Kundera, trans. Linda Asher (Harper, 96 pp., $24.99, April 2023)

This year, I reread an essay that Milan Kundera wrote 40 years ago, included in the newly published collection A Kidnapped West. The Czech writer, who died in July, described how some nations that had always considered themselves European suddenly found themselves in the East at the start of the Cold War. This cultural kinship, and the hope that one day they would be reunited, energized their struggle against communist rule. But in the eyes of the West, Kundera wrote, “these nations have become ‘Eastern countries.’” He observed this himself, living in Paris as a dissident.

Kundera was right: When the dream of one Europe came true after 1989, Central Europeans found that Western Europeans were not eager to invite them into the European Union. And when they finally did join the EU, Western Europe treated them as second-class members.

Sadly, it was Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that finally helped re-anchor Central European countries in Europe. They are front-line states, finally finding their voices in Brussels. But they still harbor a certain bitterness toward Western Europe. Whoever seeks to understand where this comes from will find much wisdom in Kundera’s clairvoyant essay and the rest of the collection.

Caroline de Gruyter, FP columnist

Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography

Michele Alacevich (Columbia University Press, 352 pp., $35, April 2021)

In Albert O. Hirschman, economic historian Michele Alacevich deftly traces the extraordinary career of one of the 20th century’s most influential social scientists. After fleeing Nazi Germany, Hirschman, who was born into a prominent Jewish family in Berlin, supported the French resistance in Marseille and helped smuggle Jewish intellectuals, artists, and dissidents to the United States. Only when his own life was in imminent danger did he flee across the Atlantic himself.

In the United States, Hirschman started out as a development and trade economist largely focused on Latin America. But over time, his work expanded to include fields such as organization theory and the philosophical foundations of modern economics. Alacevich does not dwell much on the particulars of Hirschman’s personal life and instead focuses more on the evolution of his thought. Those interested in the trajectory of Hirschman’s contributions to the field of economics will benefit from this lucid and cogent account.

Sumit Ganguly, FP columnist

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World
Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (Hachette Books, 400 pp., $19.99, September 2018, paperback)

Fans of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood and other hard-hitting journalistic exposés will love Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s stranger-than-fiction tale of how a wheeling and dealing no-name Malaysian businessman pulled off one of the biggest financial scandals in world history. The saga involves massive sovereign wealth funds, Emirati ambassadors, Victoria’s Secret models, Paris Hilton, high-powered Wall Street firms, and one of the largest cases of foreign corruption that U.S. government watchdogs have ever pursued.

Billion Dollar Whale reads like a thriller and offers insights into the consequences of corruption and kleptocracy in a globalized financial system—and how major U.S. banks profit off that corruption from afar.

Robbie Gramer


Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top