What We’re Reading: Recommended Books From 2015

As 2015 winds down, the Global Observatory offers a list of notable books published throughout the year, recommended by staff of the International Peace Institute.

Africa Uprising – Popular Protest and Political Change, by Adam Branch & Zachariah Mampilly (Zed Books, 2015)

This important book provides an alternative to the contemporary view of popular protest as represented by failed social media and street demonstrations, including the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Using current case studies in Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Sudan, the authors argue that protests are neither anti-capitalist nor simply civil society actions against ruling elites, but involve thinking beyond the state-civil society dichotomy entirely. Protests, in their analysis, involve “political society” that takes on the underlying political divisions, discrimination, and exclusion in many societies involving the intersection of race, class, and political identity. The authors see urban uprisings such as those most recently in Rio, Paris, Los Angeles, and Ferguson as ways to challenge racialized structures of power. Ultimately, in their view, these protests have to be understood with a long-term perspective, as exemplified by the protests against colonial rule in Africa and Asia a century ago, which ultimately led to the post-World War II independence movements. This is a nuanced and thoughtful analysis, recognizing also the potential for anti-democratic violence, but finally seeing contemporary movements as presaging further longer-term societal change in many developing and developed countries. Recommended by John Hirsch, Senior Adviser.

The Age of Sustainable Development, by Jeffrey D. Sachs (Columbia University Press, 2015)

In multilateral circles, 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Sustainable Development Goals. This book provides an excellent introduction to the concept of sustainable development and the SDGs. It covers the history of economic development, strategies to end extreme poverty, the link to inclusive societies, the importance of health, education, and food security, and the consequences of climate change, among others. It is the book to read on the topic of the year. Recommended by Adam Lupel, Director of Research and Publications.

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, by Thomas J. Christensen (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015)

The verb “shaping” in the subtitle is well chosen because it is the author’s thesis that the challenge facing American diplomacy is not in defying or seeking to defeat the vast and powerful nation that represents the other half of what is the 21st century’s defining bilateral relationship. Instead it is in nudging, persuading, urging, convincing China that contributing to the international system and acting in cooperative ways that avoid confrontation is the best way for it to further its own national interests. Christensen argues that Americans have reason to be invested in the success of China and wary of the consequences for America of Chinese failure. A professor of politics and director of the China and the World Program at Princeton, he writes with the long-term wisdom of a seasoned scholar, a deep knowledge of the language and culture of China, and the personal experience of having been the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the State Department’s lead contact with China. Christensen has a clear response to the alarmist theory that war between China and the US is inevitable, though, just when you begin to relax at mid-sentence he adds the pointed reminder that we shouldn’t entirely dismiss the idea. “China,” he writes, “is not an enemy of the US and should not become the kind of regional or global adversary that we have faced in the past, although that outcome is still a distinct possibility.” Recommended by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations.

The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century, by Jean-Marie Guéhenno (Brookings Institution Press, 2015)

Jean-Marie Guéhenno became the head of the UN department of peacekeeping operations in 2000, at a time when it had been downsizing for a couple of years. The common wisdom had become, as the author puts it, that UN peacekeeping was “a thing of the past.” That prediction turned out to be spectacularly wrong, because over the next eight years he was to oversee the largest expansion of peacekeeping missions in UN history. And those years were decisive ones, with peacekeeping being tasked with broad new responsibilities, becoming more complex, more dangerous and, in some cases, more controversial. The book is a memoir of a man who imagined a life of being a behind-the-scenes intellectual but became instead an upfront globe-trotting practitioner. Throughout, though, he remained a thinker, filling, by his count, 18 notebooks with his thoughts. This very thoughtful and candid book is the result. A principal takeaway: Peacekeeping, though conducted in the spirit of impartiality essential to the UN’s functioning, is “essentially a political undertaking” and this political dimension is something not fully understood and given the prominence it deserves. Recommended by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations.

51V5apsXZ5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Follies in Fragile States: How International Stabilisation Failed in the Congo, by Ian D. Quick (Double Loop, 2015)

Coinciding with the past year’s major institutional reviews of global peace operations and peacebuilding efforts, Follies in Fragile States offers a well-timed inside account of international efforts to stem the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s chronic violence and the resultant strategic failures to do so. By presenting a post-mortem critique of stabilization projects’ unsuccessful policies and processes in the country, the book identifies five “follies” and offers recommendations for critical adaptations necessary to make the international response more fit for purpose. Recommended by Marisa McCrone, former Assistant Production Editor.

From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, by Jean-Pierre Filiu, (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Most commentary around the Syrian conflict has highlighted its incredibly complex nature, with elements of state fragility, sectarianism, proxy war, violent extremism, democratic protest, mass migration, colonial legacies, and more making for a seemingly intractable mess. French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu’s latest book gives the impression that this is a superficial reading; if anything, the Syrian crisis is more complex than it first appears, as indeed, are the fates of many of the other so-called Arab Spring states. Employing an impressively comprehensive historic and geographic sweep, Filiu details the depths that Bashar al-Assad and his counterparts in Yemen, Egypt, and elsewhere have mined to maintain their grips on power, including employing the various instruments of the “deep state” security apparatus operating in parallel to official power, and nurturing the growth of jihadist groups such as the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Recommended by James Bowen, Global Observatory Assistant Editor.

Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, by Mark P. Lagon & Anthony Clark Arend, eds. (Georgetown University Press, 2015).

Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions provides a single principle that might guide the reconstruction of traditional institutions such as the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, as well as the creation of emerging institutions, such as foundations, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and businesses. Mark P. Lagon and Anthony Clark Arend offer a dual-sided definition of dignity. One side draws its meaning from the philosopher Amartya Sen, focusing on the capacity of an individual to live one’s life as they see fit, exercising liberties and realizing their own potential. The other side draws inspiration from Immanuel Kant, calling for a duty to respect the capacities of others, tolerating differences but also supporting those whose arbitrary circumstances prevent them from achieving agency. This definition not only hearkens to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it unifies and underpins the ambitions of the UN’s development goals and ultimately challenges us to re-imagine ways for new and old institutions to service human needs. Recommended by Thong Nguyen, Data Lab Program Administrator.

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, by William McCants (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)

The so-called Islamic State has inspired young men and women all over the world to commit unspeakable atrocities in its name. They have flooded into the ISIS stronghold in Syria and Iraq, subjugating millions, enslaving women, beheading captives, and daring anyone to stop them. They have carried out attacks in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and influenced Jihad-prone youth as far away as America and Australia. Their chilling mission is very specific: bring the immediate return of the Islamic empire and look ahead to the imminent doomsday. These two founding ideas, combined with a highly intelligent, meticulously organized membership, access to captured oil wealth, and mastery of social media and modern means of information management and propaganda, account for popularity and alarming growth of ISIS. McCants, Director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department senior adviser for countering violent terrorism, bases this study almost entirely on primary sources in Arabic. His book explores how the two powerful ideas shaped the past of ISIS and foreshadow its dark future. Recommended by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa, by Scott Strauss (Cornell University Press, 2015).

How is genocide, the crime of all crimes, possible? Why would political leaders ever choose genocide as a matter of state policy? For most of us this is an unfathomable question. Following up his seminal work on Rwanda, Scott Strauss asks why some countries have experienced genocide and why others have not. To answer this, he presents a comparative study of five countries: Rwanda, Sudan, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal. He finds that a key role is played by how national “founding narratives” are framed and then used by political leaders, and thus points to the importance of counter-narratives of tolerance to prevent or de-escalate violence. Recommended by Adam Lupel, Director of Research and Publications.

Managing Conflict in a World Adrift, by Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, & Pamela Aall, eds. (United States Institute of Peace, 2015).

Following the bipolar order of the Cold War and the unipolarity of the period that immediately followed, the international system, as many have noted, has entered a period of multipolarity, with power becoming increasingly dispersed. How does this diffusion of power affect the global security environment? And how can conflict be best managed in this context? This massive volume gathers together some of the leading authorities in international affairs to address these questions across more than 30 chapters on the actors, institutions, tools, debates and dilemmas of conflict management in the 21st century. Recommended by Adam Lupel, Director of Research and Publications.

The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy, by Jason Burke (The New Press, 2015)

Given events in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States, 2015 saw no shortage of books on Islamic extremism. Few, however, came from as well-informed a position as The New Threat. British journalist Jason Burke has built a career out of seeking to understand the very modern phenomenon—despite the invocation of terms like “medieval” by many political and media commentators—of groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. He draws from significant contact and face-to-face interviews with jihadists to illustrate the exact nature and extent of “the new threat,” largely as it relates to the West. While some may criticize this focus in light of the greater numbers of victims of violence in the Middle East and Africa, Burke makes a convincing case that the comparative, and potentially destabilizing, influence of the US and its allies necessitates careful policy decisions based on the best advice. In this respect, Burke’s conclusion that the threat posed by Islamic radicalization to Western societies themselves has been hugely inflated, is nothing if not sensible. If heeded, it would allow a greater focus on tackling the “far enemy,” to subvert the language of extremist groups. Recommended by James Bowen, Global Observatory Assistant Editor.

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, by Steven Lee Myers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)

As the world struggles to come to terms with a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Vladimir Putin has never been greater. Fifteen years after coming to power, he has in recent times become one of the most consequential—and difficult to predict—leaders in the world. The New Tsar is a highly readable and deeply researched book by a former New York Times Moscow bureau chief about the ambitious and determined onetime Russian spy who, emerging from a grim childhood of poverty in Leningrad, rose through the ranks of the KGB and post-communist public disorder in Moscow to consolidate tsar-like personal rule and become an established yet destabilizing world leader. Speaking in nationalistic and religious rhetoric, Putin successfully casts all threats to his power as foreign invasions, inspired by the decadent West. He has ushered in a new authoritarianism, quashing dissent, repressing inchoate revolts, defying Western rivals and building support at home for his mission of restoring aggressive Russian power and influence in places ranging from Ukraine to Syria. He has shaped a narrative of Russia that hews to his own notion of a country of traditional values under assault from undisciplined and immoral outside forces, and the Russian public has embraced this national view wholeheartedly, giving Putin popularity ratings exceeding 80%. Recommended by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations.

The Politics of Surveillance and Response to Disease Outbreaks, by Sara E. Davies & Jeremy R. Youde, eds. (Ashgate, 2015)

Presaging many of the challenges created by the Ebola crisis, this edited volume takes a hard look at the politics behind why countries report—or fail to report—disease outbreaks on their soil. An interdisciplinary work, it explores topics such as national sovereignty, human rights, the role of information and communication technologies, and even includes a “case study” on how the international community might respond to a hypothetical zombie plague. Recommended by Michael Snyder, former Policy Analyst.

The UN Security Council in the 21st Century, by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Malone, & Bruno Stagno Ugarte, eds. (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015)

A project of the International Peace Institute, The UN Security Council in the 21st Century provides a comprehensive analysis of the council’s internal dynamics, its role and relevance in world politics, and its performance in addressing today’s major peace and security challenges. With contributions from both academics and practitioners, this edited volume will be the default reference for everyone interested in understanding how the Security Council operates, its involvement in many diverse issues, and the power rivalry that underpins its work. Recommended by Francesco Mancini, Senior Adviser.