Here are eight of the books that I found most engaging and thought-provoking this year:
David Shambaugh, China Goes Global: The Partial Power (New York: Oxford University Press, February 18, 2013)
Few, if any, would dispute that China has a global footprint. Tasked with sustaining robust growth for a population greater than 1.3 billion, it must scour the world in search of vital commodities. But, Shambaugh argues, power and influence aren't the same: "China is a global actor without (yet) being a true global power... Merely having global presence does not equal having global power unless a nation influences events in a particular region or realm."
Moisés Naím, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be (New York: Basic Books, March 5, 2013)
Naím is one of the most penetrating observers of international affairs. His "Missing Links" columns for Foreign Policy remain a gold standard for provoking and illuminating in just a few words. Amid the torrent of books that seek to explain how the international system is evolving, Naím makes a bold claim: "Power is decaying."
Richard Haass, Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order (New York: Basic Books, April 30, 2013)
The recalibration that Haass calls for shouldn't be confused with isolationism. In fact, he preempts that charge: "Isolationism makes absolutely no sense in the twenty-first century... Embracing isolationism would accelerate the emergence of a more disorderly and dangerous world." Haass's book expounds a self-evident conclusion: the U.S. can't sustain its leadership in international affairs if its own economic foundation remains frail.
Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century (New York: Basic Books, April 30, 2013)
Many observers would understandably call 1989 the most pivotal year of the 20th century: the fall of the Berlin Wall foreshadowed the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of a nearly 50-year ideological conflict. Caryl makes a compelling case, however, that we should go back to 1979 if we want to understand the contours of 21st-century geopolitics. To that end, he focuses on five seminal events that occurred that year: "Margaret Thatcher's election as British prime minister; the Iranian Revolution; Pope John Paul II's fateful pilgrimage to his Polish homeland; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the start of economic reform in China."
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, May 6, 2013)
Nye examines eight American presidents, dividing them into four categories: "transformational leaders who mostly use a transactional style," "transformational leaders who are strong on inspirational style," "incremental leaders with a transactional style," and "incremental leaders who often use an inspirational style." He "finds little evidence to support the general assumptions of leadership theory and public discourse that transformational foreign policy leaders are better in either ethics or effectiveness." As always, Nye's nuanced meditations on power, policy, and leadership merit close consideration.
Noah Feldman, Cool War: The Future of Global Competition (New York: Random House, May 21, 2013)
This book might strike some as a detour for Feldman, who's best known for his scholarship on the nexus of law and religion. Regardless, he offers a sharp, succinct glimpse of the emerging dynamics between the U.S. and China. "Geostrategic conflict is inevitable," he concludes. "But mutual economic interdependence can help manage that conflict and keep it from spiraling out of control."
Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 23, 2013)
There's a tendency to look back fondly on the "good old days," even though, to borrow from Hobbes, life was far more "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" for a far greater fraction of humanity in centuries past than it is now. Deaton explains why "[l]ife is better now than at almost any time in history," but warns that a number of phenomena could derail the progress of the past 250 or so years. He rightly concludes that "there is no basis for a thoughtless triumphalism."
Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, October 2, 2013)
For those who're interested in how strategic thinking and theory have evolved, Freedman's account will likely be the definitive one for some time to come. He rejects the notion that strategy is interchangeable with planning or that it merely applies to duels. In fact, as he told the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs this September, "the most effective strategy when you're an underdog is to find friends or supporters or even people who just happen to have a coincidence of interest."