12/17/2013 07:37 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

The Ambassadude Abides: Mandela, Obama and the Arc of History

I had just finished a holiday lecture "Can Sports Bring World Peace?" when news of Nelson Mandela's death was announced. In a fall course on sports and diplomacy at Occidental, I required students to watch the movie Invictus which depicts how Mandela as president made a choice to reach out to white South Africans, appealing to their love of rugby and the national team, the Springboks, just as he made a choice to seek reconciliation and inclusion rather than retribution and exclusion when he left Robben Island. It is one of the great moments in sports diplomacy.

Choice matters in politics, as in sports, especially at crucial moments. We don't get to choose the circumstances of our birth or the terrain -- the historical time and place where we live -- but we are free to make vital choices about how to live as Mandela certainly did. Diplomatic historian Margaret MacMillan comes down on the side of human agency in her new book, The War That Ended The Peace, about the events leading up to WWI. She summarizes her argument in an essay on the Brookings Institution website, writing that the Great War and the drastic consequences that followed were not inevitable, but a result of choices made by political leaders.

President Obama has made choices in his presidency, many with mixed outcomes such as his initial expansion of the war in Afghanistan or his extensive use of drones in Pakistan. In a New Yorker (December 16 issue) article, "State of Deception," journalist Ryan Lizza reports on Obama's willingness to maintain most of the global surveillance protocols and programs of the Bush administration, choosing to err on the side of national security over privacy rights. Lizza's article makes clear that Senator Ron Wyden, the liberal Democratic Senator from Oregon, takes issue with this choice.

On the diplomatic front, President Obama seems to have found his footing in negotiations over nuclear issues with Iran and he seemingly got lucky, at least in the short run, over chemical weapons in Syria. If successful, these diplomatic efforts could lead to greater rapprochement with Iran and perhaps normalization of relations which would be a game changer in the Middle East (which is why princes in Saudi Arabia and right wing politicians in Israel are criticizing Obama's interim deal over sanctions on Iran). Obama's polite handshake with Raul Castro at Mandela's memorial might also hint at a diplomatic initiative with Cuba, clearing away more deadwood of the Cold War. These choices to engage in serious diplomacy might bring achievements which merit Obama the Nobel Peace Prize that he has already been awarded, although on the fraught matter of North Korea, he might want to leave dealing with Kim Jong-un to Dennis Rodman, at least for the holiday season. Rodman is off again to Pyongyang this month to ply his basketball diplomacy.

At Occidental College where Obama studied and engaged in student protests against the Apartheid regime, delivering his first political speech in favor of college divestment from South Africa, students have a mixed and nuanced view of Obama as president. They appreciate his way with words, especially his recent speeches on inequality. They love the fact that he is the first African-American president, and that he formed his political and intellectual identity in the crucible of classroom and late night debates on the Oxy campus. They want the Affordable Care Act to work, and understand that many Republicans are doing their best to undermine its operation, but they still worry about the way it has been rolled out and they laugh at the Obamacare jokes on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They miss the inspirational days of the first history-making campaign, and many of them, especially women students, are waiting for Hillary to return to the political stage.

Whatever the president's flaws and however virulent and hate filled his enemies, he has chosen to stand in the public arena, armed with skills and knowledge gained at Oxy, where ideas and books matter. I smiled at the pictures of Obama on a holiday shopping spree at Politics & Prose, my favorite book store in Washington, DC, indulging his appetite for the printed word by buying dozens of books for friends, relatives and himself. Like Bill Clinton, he is a serious reader although he prefers more literary choices in fiction than Clinton who is partial to detective novels. Both Obama and Clinton, of course, read works of history and biography, especially of former presidents.

Obama's holiday shopping as well as nudging from friends reminded me that I need to post my favorite books of 2013 -- a tradition that I began when the Huffington Post first started publication. I've already mentioned Margaret MacMillan's history, The War That Ended The Peace, and I also highly recommend Paris 1919, her history of the peace talks after WWI. Taken together, these books help to explain much of what transpired in world politics in the 20th Century. On US foreign policy during the Cold War, I enjoyed The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer, the incredible story of Allen and John Foster Dulles, two brothers who ran the CIA and the State Department and tried to project American values across the globe while using dubious means. Kinzer, a New York Times journalist turned historian, is one of the best chroniclers of the little known underbelly of US foreign policy. Scottish historian William Dalrymple authored Return of a King, a magisterial history of British wars in Afghanistan, which reads like a boy's own adventure novel. He also wrote a brilliant online essay for Brookings on the current lessons of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Israel is always a fraught topic in American politics. Two new books offer perspectives which encourage readers to rethink knee jerk reactions and to ponder the complexities of history and religion. In his book Goliath, a young American Jewish journalist Max Blumenthal provides first hand reporting of the growing strength of right wing groups in Israeli politics. The author spoke at Oxy and engaged students' difficult questions with aplomb. My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, a liberal Israeli journalist, is an historical memoir of power and insight, reflecting on the achievements in creating Israel as a Jewish state, yet fearful of its future for many of the reasons which Blumenthal reports.

We also hosted author Russell Shorto to speak at Oxy about his history of Amsterdam as one of the great liberal cities of the world -- liberal in the European sense of open to trade, to ideas, and to religious tolerance. I learned something from almost every chapter. Another fall visitor to Oxy, the former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, entranced students with a multimedia presentation on his five month captivity by Al-Qaeda in the Sahara. His book about the experience, A Season in Hell, is one of the few which provides first hand sketches of the young men who are attracted to Jihadi ways and who have little interest in liberal ideas or the material temptations of the West.

With her new book The Bully Pulpit, historian Doris Goodwin has scored another hit, providing a rich, detailed look at the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt and how he used the stage of the White House as well as the rising investigative press (the so-called Muckrakers) to affect social change. It is a book which shows how a man can make choices which change history. I wish Obama would make more effective use of the White House as a pulpit and work with the media rather than investigating reporters about leaks. For a look back at the life of a great American liberal, The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., edited by his sons Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger, makes instructive reading, especially on the Kennedy years. Obama has made good use of the Kennedy connection by appointing Caroline Kennedy to be ambassador to Japan -- an appointment which has been greeted with enthusiasm by the Japanese government and public.

Of the many books on Mandela, a good place to start is journalist John Carlin's Playing The Enemy on Mandela's rugby diplomacy, the basis for Clint Eastwood's film Invictus, and his wonderful new memoir, Knowing Mandela: A Personal Portrait.

For economist and policy wonk friends, there is the important book The Entrepreneurial State: Rethinking Public vs Private Sector Myths by Marianna Mazzucato, which documents how most of the technological advances of the past fifty years are linked to government research and development programs. One chapter on Apple demonstrates how every key technology incorporated in the most famous Apple products came from publicly supported research. Conservative attacks on government spending, especially on support for research in science and technology, undercut economic growth rather than promote it.

In detective fiction to which I and Bill Clinton (and many other politico friends) are addicted, the characters also make choices, often bad ones, but they do so in interesting circumstances. 2013 was a good year for new novels by many of my favorite authors: Norwegian Jo Nesbo's Police; Scottish Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible; Chinese professor Qui Xiaolong's Enigma of China; Australian Garry Discher's Bitter Wash Road; Delhi-based author Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Love Commandos; Parker Bilal's DogStar Rising, his second novel set in Cairo; Martin Cruz Smith's Tatiana, set in Kaliningrad in current day Russia; Sarah Gran's Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, the second in a quirky US-based series; Colin Cotterill's The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, set in Laos; James Church's A Drop of Chinese Blood, set in North Korea and China; Leighton Gage's Perfect Hatred, dealing with corruption and politics in Brazil; and House of Evidence by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, latest of his Icelandic mysteries. All offer compelling stories set in interesting settings -- not unlike a foreign policy briefing which includes criminal behavior. And a few new authors in the genre: Hour of the Red God by Richard Crompton, featuring a Maasai detective in contemporary Nairobi, and The Missing File by D.A. Mishani, the first in a series with an Israeli police inspector. In the techno-thriller category, Daniel Suarez has a great new book, Influx, coming out early in 2014, but you can get started with his earlier works, Daemon and Freedom, a two book adventure about the future of the Internet, and Kill Decision, the most exciting fictional book on drones you can read.

As we put up our Xmas tree and decorate the house for the holidays, we've been listening to Barbara Streisand's The Classic Christmas Album, to James Taylor at Christmas, and to Sunshine on Leith, the soundtrack from the film of the same name, a kind of "Scottish Mama Mia," using songs of the Proclaimers. Few new albums caught my fancy; I am stuck in time (and on the radio dial with Classic 60s). My wife Sue got out a gift from a previous Christmas to play -- Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record, an incredible 13 CD set of music from 1961-2008.

The CD album which we regularly give as a gift is Chimes of Freedom: the Songs of Bob Dylan, recorded by 80 artists in honor of Amnesty International's 50th anniversary, produced by my daughter Julie Yannatta and her mentor, the legendary Jeff Ayeroff. One of Julie's music clients Sarah Bareilles has a new hit pop song "Brave," which has been nominated for a Grammy. It has an appealing feminist/gay rights message as well as a good beat. Our grand daughter Jasmine sings and dances in the music video. We will also be giving as a gift the CD of the soundtrack from Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers' film about the folk music scene in New York City, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk. The music is arranged by the great T Bone Burnett.

I don't have to promote the music video "What Does the Fox Say"; it has millions of fans including our grandson Viggo who likes to sing and dance to the song. However, I can recommend a less well known music video by Ylvis, the Norwegian duo who created the Fox. It's called "Stonehenge," an amusing take on one of life's big philosophical questions.

Over the Xmas holidays, we will be seeing the biographical film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring the talented actor Idris Elba (check out his work in the BBC detective series Luther). It's another homage to Mandela and the choices that he made in life. And we just had our friend Peter Edelman to dinner. He and his wife Marian Wright Edelman are Mandela-like in their commitment to fighting poverty in the US.

We will be going to my mother Marva Shearer's 95th Birthday dinner dance on December 21. She was an athlete and student leader at Wellesley college in the 1930s, a journalist and editor at film magazines and family editor for House Beautiful, and a world traveler with my father, journalist Lloyd Shearer. During WWII, she made the choice to marry a poor Army private rather than a privileged Ivy League grad and headed west with him to live an exciting life. She is planning to hang around to see Hillary inaugurated as our first woman president.

The Ambassadude wishes you all the best of holidays. Bask in the glow of Nelson Mandela's departed soul -- and make good choices in 2014.