Below are some of Sam’s book reviews. Check out the Books category for posts like this!
Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (by Mark Blyth): As I have mentioned in other posts, I’m a huge fan of Mark Blyth. His witty and insightful commentary is always interesting, and this book is no different. In Austerity, Blyth demolishes the ridiculous claim that a country can cut its way to growth during an economic downturn. Blyth provides more than a simple critique of conservative economics, though. He traces the development of austerity from the early enlightenment philosophers all the way to the modern economic schools that champion “expansionary fiscal consolidation.” He then reviews the experiences of countries in both the Great Depression and Great Recession as economic case studies, and he debunks the supposed success stories of Ireland and the Baltic states. I particularly appreciated Blyth’s fair treatment of the arguments pushed by pro-austerity economists. Despite being unequivocally opposed to austerity, Blyth is a fair arbiter who provides reasoned criticism. While Austerity is short and concise, its message is clear and well-argued. I can’t recommend it enough.
Bridge on the Drina (by Ivo Andrić): This book, unlike most of the books I read and review, is fiction. However, the entire plot focuses on historical developments in a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the book does an effective job of conveying the social and political evolutions that occurred in the region. Starting from the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1400s and ending with the outbreak of World War One, this book covers a long and fascinating period of time. As someone from the region, Andrić is able to effectively tell the story of the Bosnian people and show the enormous changes that occurred in the area. In many ways, the plot reminds me of the political and economic transformations happening now in the West: New technologies emerge and empires decline, but the people in the town largely stay the same, struggling to understand and adapt to the world around them. The book is great historical fiction, but it also provides a compelling social commentary on societies’ attempts to cope with a rapidly changing world.
Cafe Europa (by Slavenka Drakulić): As a native of Yugoslavia, Drakulić presents a unique and insightful view into the Balkan countries’ transition out of communism in Cafe Europa. A constant theme throughout the book is Drakulić’s dual identity as an Eastern European – she is from Croatia – and a Western European – her husband is a Swede. She highlights a number of the structural and cultural problems that impeded integration with the West as well as Balkan citizens’ struggle to adjust to their brave new world. It’s important to note that this book was written during the mid-1990s and is, therefore, fairly dated. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone trying to get a better sense of the contemporary Balkan region. However, it provides a powerful and deeply personal assessment of the tumultuous and inconclusive transition the region experienced after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the fall of Ceaușescu in Romania. This alone makes it valuable, as it pushes back against the overly triumphalist narratives of 1989 and 1990 that, by focusing exclusively on northern and central Eastern Europe, create an unduly Pollyanish view.
Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (by David Stevenson): I’ll be honest. This is far from the best book I read this semester. The writing style is dry and, in my opinion, lacking. Moreover, I feel that there are just far too many typos for such a well-researched and informative work. That being said, I learned a massive amount of new information on WWI from reading this book, and I think that anyone seeking to acquire a better grasp of the conflict needs this book on their shelf. Stevenson does a superb job of capturing all of the salient parts of the war and presenting them in a coherent and effectively condensed form. From the domestic politics of the warring countries to the economic reforms designed to boost armament output to the enormous, hard-fought battles throughout the world, this book provides extensive information on every aspect of the war. As someone who has read a lot about the lead up to the war, I feel that this book is an excellent addition to my WWI collection because it has allowed me to better understand the war itself.
The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (by Caitlin Talmadge): This is another great book analyzing regime types. Talmadge focuses on how autocratic regimes organize their militaries. Her central thesis is that regimes which face a high risk of coups tend to have less effective forces because they intentionally weaken their militaries in a process known as “coup proofing.” In short, leaders try to lower the chance of a successful coup by appointing incompetent, loyal commanders and undermining training regimens. Talmadge argues that when states face severe external pressure from rival states, however, they will shift to more conventional military doctrines in order to more effectively deter and, if necessary, defeat hostile neighbors. This is an important contribution to the scholarly literature because it helps predict when countries are paper tigers (Iraq), thus aiding in U.S. strategic planning. Another book definitely worth reading if you are interested in military organizations or international relations.
Dictators at War and Peace (by Jessica Weeks): This book really changed the way I think about regime type and foreign policy. For many years, political scientists have known that democracies are far less war-prone than autocratic states. However, Weeks adds nuance to the so-called democratic peace theory by revealing that different types of autocratic regimes have very different foreign policies. In particular, she argues that autocratic regimes that face audience costs are less likely to engage in reckless wars than personalist regimes which don’t have to answer to anyone. Moreover, she finds that military regimes are uniquely war-prone, with militarist personalist regimes being the most likely to start and lose wars. Her book is worth reading if you are an academic, a policymaker, or just an informed voter. Definitely check it out.
Economic Interdependence and War (by Dale Copeland): This is a truly fantastic book. Not only does it introduce a novel approach to thinking about interdependent dyads, but it also provides an incredibly rich and fascinating list of historical case studies. The real contribution of Copeland’s book is merging liberalism and realism by arguing that trade is peace inducing when states have positive expectations towards future trade, but war inducing when states adopt a pessimistic outlook on future trade. The complete theory is too complex for me to explain in this brief blurb, but suffice it so say that it has generated major shockwaves in the IR community. If you are interested in how trade has influenced wars, be sure to check this book out. It’s equally rewarding for history nerds and political scientists alike.
The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (by Joseph Stiglitz): Given Europe’s current economic malaise, Stiglitz’s book is incredibly timely. It presents a compelling and detailed explanation of both the structural flaws within the Eurozone – the lack of a banking union and the tendency of the monetary union to create divergent economies among the member states – as well as the misguided and counterproductive policy choices implemented by the European Troika. Stiglitz convincingly argues that the Eurozone is a half-baked institution that is actively worse than both total European economic integration and completely independent national economies. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book comes at the end, where Stiglitz discusses a range of possible solutions to the current crisis. Regardless of one’s economic views, this book provides a comprehensive and thought-provoking look at Europe’s current economic woes. As one reviewer put it, Stiglitz’s work is “demand-side economics at its best,” and I couldn’t agree more.
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (by Nicholas Stargardt): I discovered The German War after Stargardt came to Georgetown to speak about the research that went into this book. Essentially, Stargardt tries to understand what it was like to be a German during WWII using archival analysis. Germany was clearly the aggressor during the Second World War, and thus the experiences of its many victims – the Slavs, Jews, Roma, etc. – have been examined in excruciating detail. Few, however, have looked at how the war was viewed by actual Germans. Stargardt paints a complex picture of the German experience during the war. For example, he finds that most Germans knew of the atrocities committed by their regime, making German war guilt even more powerful. However, Stargardt also paints a picture of solidarity and camaraderie, vividly recounting the travails of ordinary citizens who suffered constant bombing and soldiers ordered to violate their consciences. In sum, Stargardt has penned a powerful and moving book that deserves to be read by anyone seeking to understand WWII or the impact that the war had on German society and culture.
Give a Man a Fish (by James Ferguson): In this truly amazing book, Ferguson offers an impressive and extensive survey of social welfare programs in southern Africa and presents a compelling case for increased economic assistance for disadvantaged groups. What I found particularly refreshing about Ferguson’s book is his ability to incorporate economic, sociological, and philosophical arguments into one coherent and well-written book. I also appreciated his highly reflective and non-ideological presentation of arguments. Ferguson is able to largely avoid the stale and tedious debate between the ideological extremes of complete neoliberalism and Marxism, and I think this makes his book far more relevant and far less polarizing than other works in the literature base. In an increasingly antagonistic world, Fergusson’s work offers hope that ideological rivalries can be healed and compromises created in order to generate real progress on issues of inequality and economic growth.
How Wars End (by Dan Reiter): I already wrote a more extensive review/synopsis of this book earlier in the year, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to include Reiter’s work in this post because his scholarship is truly groundbreaking, and his book offers a novel and deeply useful approach for understanding war termination. Simply put, Reiter develops a new way of thinking about states’ propensity to surrender by building on work done by James Fearon on “credible commitments.” Reiter contends that, contrary to accepted wisdom on warfighting, countries do not determine whether to surrender solely from battlefield results. Instead, they also look at future projections of relative military power and assess the credibility of enemies’ commitments to peace. As long as continuing to fight is less dangerous to state survival than surrendering and potentially facing a newly empowered and unconstrained enemy, Reiter argues, states will choose to fight on.
The Ideas Industry (by Daniel Drezner): Drezner is one of my favorite political commentators and is also an excellent international relations scholar. Therefore, I felt obligated to acquire a copy of his newest book, The Ideas Industry, a soon as it was released. The book is a fascinating and important take on the current state of the “ideas industry” in the United States today (though the book’s arguments likely also apply to countries outside the U.S. as well). Drezner’s basic contention is that the public ideas industry is shaped by two primary groups of people, “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals.” Thought leaders are the proverbial hedgehogs: They have one big idea and apply it to everything (think Niall Ferguson or Jeffrey Sachs). Public intellectuals are like the foxes: They know a lot of things fairly well, but they lack any core, driving message (think Fareed Zakaria or David Brooks). According to Drezner, thought leaders push our horizons with their new insights while public intellectuals act as gatekeepers, providing public commentary on and criticism of evangelizing thought leaders’ more absurd contentions. A healthy ideas ecosystem requires both kinds of thinkers. We need people to develop novel visions and apply them to pressing contemporary issues, but we also need experienced critics who can point out the flaws in thought leaders’ “big ideas.” Drezner argues that growing partisanship, increasing income inequality, and the celebrity status of provocative thought leaders has led to an oversupply of thought leaders and a dearth of public intellectuals, creating shoddy scholarship designed to pander to partisan groups at the expense of the truth. I wish that Drezner had provided more concrete solutions to rectify the problems he identifies in the book, but I found his overall argument interesting and largely accurate. In a world saturated with celebrity intellectuals and infested with fake news, Drezner’s book is a timely addition to the literature.
The Invisible Hand of Peace: Capitalism, the War Machine, and International Relations Theory (by Patrick J. McDonald): This is a slightly more technical book, so if you aren’t a political science nerd, it’s probably not worth reading. That being said, I found it to be an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking work. In The Invisible Hand of Peace, McDonald attempts to understand the role that democracy and free-market institutions play in constraining countries’ propensity for conflict. He finds that while the so-called democratic peace (the claim that democracies do not fight one another) is likely wrong or at least severely overstated, free market institutions tend to make states more pacific, as business interests push for increased trade and lobby against costly and damaging wars. To be sure, I found parts of his analysis to be unconvincing. For instance, McDonald’s claim that the absence of a democratic peace prior to WWI undercuts the veracity of democratic peace theory seems foolish to me because pre-WWI democracy is meaningfully different than the kind of democracy that developed in the early 20th century and interwar period. That being said, McDonald’s statistical work is robust and his empirical analysis is deeply illuminating. If you are at all interested in the intersection of economics and international conflict, I can’t recommend this book enough.
The Magic Lantern (by Timothy Garton Ash): Timothy Garton Ash is one of the world’s leading experts on Eastern Europe, and The Magic Lantern is a testament to his academic prowess. In The Magic Lantern, Ash provides a thorough summary of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary’s transitions from communism to liberal democracy. The most fascinating part of this book is the degree to which Ash cites his personal experiences on the ground in 1989 and 1990. He gave speeches to Solidarity in Poland, met with Havel in Czechoslovakia, and was in East Berlin three days after the Wall fell. This grants the book a unique, almost biographical, feel that I believe adds to the narrative, as it allows Ash to recount highly personal anecdotes that enrich his account. I do think that Ash is perhaps overly optimistic in some parts of the book: He was disadvantaged by the fact that he wrote the book as events were unfolding, preventing him from having the benefit of hindsight. I also think that his close proximity to the elites of the revolutionary movements biases his account toward the macro-level political scene as opposed to the “everyday citizen” view presented in Drakulić’s Cafe Europa. This is not a bad thing, but it is something that should be kept in mind while reading the book. Despite these minor shortcomings, The Magic Lantern is an absolutely superb book, and it should be read by anyone trying to understand the events that precipitated the fall of communist Eastern Europe.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (by Gregor von Rezzori): I found this book to be an interesting read, as it is an embellished autobiographical tale that recounts the author’s experiences in interwar Romania. The book is broken up into five distinct and seemingly unrelated chapters that are chock-full of humorous anecdotes and captivating stories. The central theme of the book seems to be the author’s complicated interaction with the Jewish community of Eastern Europe. While he dislikes the Jews, von Rezzori can never seem to escape them, and this leads to a number of fascinating interactions that reveal the perniciousness and complexity of the anti-Semitism that existed throughout Eastern Europe in the 20s and 30s. More broadly, von Rezzori discusses the increasingly complex ethnic interactions that came to dominate the region after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As an Austrian German living in Romania, von Rezzori has two contradictory identities: He is both a minority as well as a member of the former ruling class. As the book comes to a close, one has a better sense of the complex racial issues that contributed to the instability and racial animus that ultimately contributed to Nazism and the Second World War.
Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (by Jan T. Gross): I don’t know why I didn’t read this book earlier. It is incredibly famous and controversial (especially in Poland), and it is a morbidly captivating read. In Neighbors, Gross examines the case of the Jedwabne Massacre, an event in which the Jewish community of Jedwabne, a small town in eastern Poland, was slaughtered by their fellow Poles. While this event occurred during the German occupation of Poland, the atrocity was committed, at least according to Gross, exclusively by Poles. In other words, the Poles were both victims and victimizers, and this fact adds a degree of nuance often lacking in accounts of the war. Gross also does a fantastic job of addressing the impact of the double occupation of Eastern Poland and the ways in which it was exploited by both the Nazis and the Soviets. While short, this book is gripping and provocative, and it should be read by anyone with an interest in WWII, Poland, or anti-Semitism.
The Origins of Political Order (by Francis Fukuyama): Honestly, I’m a bit late to the party on this one. Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order was published a few years ago, and the sequel – Political Order and Political Decay – actually came out before I even read the first book. Nevertheless, better late than never. Fukuyama undertakes a task of epic proportions in his two-part magnum opus, tracking the development of human political systems from the dawn of civilization to the present. As someone who thinks writing twenty-page papers is a chore, Fukuyama’s massive treatise is utterly awe inspiring. Fukuyama’s primary contribution to the field of political development is tracing political decay. In particular, Fukuyama argues that nepotism inevitably undermines even the best organized political systems. Rulers put their relatives in power, eroding the talent base of the political order. Ultimately, this collapses once effective political system. If you are interested in history, politics, or organizational theory, this is the book for you. It’s a bit long, but it’s certainly worth your time.
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (by Margaret MacMillan): MacMillan literally wrote the book on the Paris Peace Conference with Paris 1919. Her analysis is wide-ranging and informative, and she provides an excellent summary of the war’s effects on countries throughout the world. Much of the contemporary commentary on WWI seems to focus exclusively on the question of reparations and their impact on German militarism under Hitler. As MacMillan demonstrates in Paris 1919, this is an enormous mistake, as it ignores the significant ways in which the peace conference affected regions ranging from Eastern Europe to East Asia. With the captivating and masterful prose that defines her work, MacMillan provides a thorough and engaging look at the Versaille negotiations. She describes the complicated relations between the Big Four (Lloyd George, Wilson, Orlando, and Clemenceau), the internecine disputes among the members of the British Dominion during the negotiations, and the ways in which the Paris Peace Conference impacted the lives of people living in just about every region of the world. Anyone interested in European history and the World Wars will enjoy this book.
Political Order and Political Decay (by Francis Fukuyama): A classic. Seriously, if you haven’t heard of Fukuyama’s work, you have been living under a rock. Fukuyama is arguably the greatest social theorist of the past few decades, and he is one of the greatest thinkers to ever grace this planet. From the development of the U.S. Forest Service to patronage networks in southern Italy to the current gridlock in Washington, Fukuyama thoroughly examines the evolution of political institutions and the reasons for their decay. If you are interested in the systems and institutions of politics, you need to read this book. If you don’t care about politics at all, you should still get this book because it is a classic that you need to have on your bookshelf.
Radetzky March (by Joseph Roth): Another work of fiction, this book by Roth traces the story of the Trotta family. From simple peasants, they eventually rise up the political ladder of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and witness the onset of the First World War. What is particularly fascinating about the book is its focus on the ethnic tensions that existed beneath the surface of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Political elites like Barron Trotta view the Empire as a unified and cohesive unit that exists above the petty bickering of its constituent ethnic groups. The soldiers and citizens of the Empire hold a vastly different view, however, and they see the Empire as an unstable amalgamation of distinct groups that should not reside in the same state. This contrast is both historically accurate and also raises thought-provoking questions like would the Empire have been able to hold together if WWI hadn’t occurred? It also has parallels to modern American politics that focus increasingly on ethnic and race-based identity.
Realpolitik: A History (by John Bew): Bew has written a truly fascinating book about the evolution of the term realpolitik. Originally coined by a German, Ludwig von Rochau, the term has now come to be synonymous with realism and cold strategic calculations. That was not always the case, however. Rochau coined the term in his book Grundsätze der Realpolitik, angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands while pondering the revolutions of 1848. In his book, Rochau argued that revolutionary elements within the German states needed to be less utopian in their political strategy and accept that reality requires compromise, not rigid moral purity. Rochau did not, however, argue that rationalism trumped emotion and culture. On the contrary, he thought it was highly rational and utterly necessary to consider and understand the role that ideational forces play in shaping history and politics. Bew also illuminates the evolution of the normative meaning of the term realpolitik, explaining how it was originally viewed as barbaric and “German” during WWI before gaining popularity during the 1930s. The book is far too rich and nuanced for me to do it justice in one paragraph. Suffice it to say, if you are interested in the history of ideas or the way in which terms and meanings evolve over time, this book is a must read.
The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (by John Toland): This is the best book I have read in the past year. If you are fascinated by the War in the Pacific or Japanese history, I can’t recommend this book enough. Toland performs the rare feat of writing an accurate and deeply researched tome that is both well-written and deeply engaging. The Rising Sun is a long book (over 900 pages if one includes the notes at the end), but it is supremely easy to read because the technical skill of the author is first rate. Toland’s strength is in providing a view of the war from the Japanese perspective. At the same time, though, Toland is also able to effectively incorporate American and British primary sources, creating a balanced and well-rounded account of the conflict. The Rising Sun is a narrative that is both wide in scope and, at the same time, deeply personal and detailed. Moreover, The Rising Sun is filled with riveting, funny, and sometimes tragic anecdotes that create a history that is engaging and personal, not whitewashed and boring. Honestly, I doubt one even needs to be interested in World War Two to enjoy this book. It is such a fulfilling and well-written book that anyone, even those who hate history, should be able to read it with pleasure.
Theory of Unipolar Politics (by Nuno Monteiro): Monteiro contributes substantially to the IR literature base in his treatise on the durability and stability of unipolar systems. IR has long been trapped in a seemingly never-ending debate between primacists who argue that America’s position as a global hegemon is both secure and peace inducing and declinists who contend that the unequal distribution of power will inevitably result in balancing coalitions and the decline of the United States’ global position. Monteiro adds to this debate by combining system level theorizing with foreign policy. In particular, he argues that the type of foreign policy America pursues will influence the durability and stability of its hegemonic dominance. While I think Monteiro has some major flaws in his argument (for example, he fails to consider economic variables’ impact on the security realm), this book is certainly worth a read if you are interested in the global balance of power or American foreign policy. Best of all, it is not even all that long!
The War That Ended Peace (by Margaret MacMillan): Despite having already read a fair number of books about the First World War, I decided to read yet another during my Christmas break. While this may seem redundant, I found it to be a valuable use of my time because World War One is such a complex and confusing conflict and, therefore, requires a large amount of study to be properly understood. I found MacMillan’s book to be inferior to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, as it lacks many of the novel and fascinating anecdotes that made Clark’s work such a success. That being said, The War That Ended Peace is still a superb book that adroitly covers all of the salient events leading up to the war. In particular, I thought MacMillan did a masterful job of capturing the Zeitgeist in Europe during the early 20th century. While I found much of the actual information in the book to be unoriginal and slightly unfair toward Germany, it was an excellent summary of the lead up to the war. If you are looking for a comprehensive and well-written account of the onset of World War One, you would be well-advised to try The War That Ended Peace.
Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (by Eric Weitz): Weitz’ book is truly fantastic and is, in my opinion, the authoritative text on Weimar Germany. Indeed, almost every class on 1920s/1930s Germany here at Georgetown lists this book as required reading. The strength of Weimar Germany is its broad scope. Too many historical works focus on the classic topics of politics and diplomacy at the expense of other areas. This is certainly not the case with Weimar Germany, though. Weitz covers everything from domestic politics to art to music and theater in his wide-ranging book, and in so doing, he does a great service to those attempting to acquire a holistic understanding of Germany during the interwar period. One slight frustration I had with the book was Weitz’ seemingly Pollyanish views toward German Communists. While I agree with his assessment of German conservatism and its role in creating the Nazi party, I think Weitz sometimes paints an overly sympathetic picture of radical communist networks in the Weimar Republic. Given the rise of politicians like Walter Ulbricht in the GDR, I think Weitz’ views toward the Communists are, perhaps, a bit unfounded. That being said, this book is absolutely superb, and it provides an excellent review of an often overlooked era in German history.
What is Populism? (by Jan Werner-Müller): This was a great little book that should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to understand the immense success of populist parties throughout the developed world. What is Populism? posits that populism represents the shadow of liberal democracy, as it is an ideology that attempts to keep democracy while rejecting liberalism. This results in a form of highly exclusionary politics that privileges the “real people” at the expense of “others.” Some academics argue that populist governments are oxymoronic because protest parties have no platform beyond bashing elites and belittling mainstream policies. Worryingly, Werner-Müller clearly and convincingly rejects this argument, pointing out that politicians like Erdoĝan and Orbán have been able to successfully lead populist regimes. After all, Werner-Müller argues, if populism really is the darker version of liberal democracy, there is no reason governments couldn’t adopt exclusionary politics designed to overrepresent “the chosen people” while intentionally marginalizing other voices. Given the current direction of Western politics, this warning must be taken seriously.
Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (by Philip T. Hoffman): This book was recommended to me by my comparative politics professor, and it was a really interesting read. Hoffman is an economic historian – a field with which I have little experience – and thus develops a very interesting approach for studying European military history. Hoffman argues that the standard explanations of European military dominance (for example, the ones made by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel) are unsatisfactory. The argument that diseases helped the Europeans expand doesn’t explain how the spice islands and parts of Southeast Asia were conquered, for example, as people in these regions had already developed immunity to most European disease. Other arguments such as the geographic makeup of Europe creating a fractious and war-prone region that catalyzed advancements in military technology are also unpersuasive because Europe is actually no more mountainous or variegated than China, an enormous and relatively unified power during the period of early European colonization. Hoffman develops a tournament model of conflict, which he argues better captures European warfare. In essence, he posits that Europe was uniquely war prone due to its hereditary, honor-bound political system. Thus, despite being technologically inferior and economically weaker than Middle Eastern and Asian powers, European leaders spent a far larger percent of GDP on military activities such as jousting tournaments and war. This allowed them to leap ahead of rival empires with regard to military capabilities, thus enabling European powers to defeat far more prosperous and advanced civilizations. If you enjoy history or novel approaches to answering old questions, I recommend you give this book a shot.