I have recently been going through my stacks of books, and I realized that there are still several books I read last year, as well as two I’ve read this year, that I have yet to review. Therefore, I’ve decided to write up this New Year’s book post. If any of you have a resolution to read more books this year, I recommend checking these out. They were all very well-written and informative, and I imagine that anyone who enjoys the content on this blog will enjoy the books reviewed below.
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (by Nicholas Thompson): This was a wonderful book that combines an excellent general history of the Cold War with detailed biographies of Paul Nitze and George Kennan. The author, Nicholas Thompson, enjoys the advantage of being one of Nitze’s grandchildren, and this granted him access to personal anecdotes and files that would otherwise have likely never been discovered. Thompson capitalizes on this advantage, using rich descriptions of his two subjects to elucidate their worldviews and fit them into broader Cold War debates. Kennan was a deep, abstract thinker whose grand strategic pronouncements were frequently light on specifics and sometimes even contradictory. Nitze, by contrast, was a master of details and technical specifications, but he often became lost in the minutiae without ever stepping back to identify the larger purpose of American grand strategy. The two also differed in their assessments of the future, with Kennan being far more skeptical of technology and progress than Nitze. Despite their highly divergent beliefs, Thompson demonstrates that Nitze and Kennan maintained a good, though late-blooming, professional relationship that allowed them to respect each other while still fundamentally disagreeing. Of course, the book is not perfect. It is, perhaps by necessity, sparse on discussions of Soviet perspectives. Thompson also likely exaggerates the degree to which the two men shaped each other’s thinking and actions. Nevertheless, the book provides a rich account of two of the most important American defense intellectuals of the Cold War, and it does so in a way that is accessible and well-grounded.
The Rise and Fall of Communism (by Archie Brown): This is a book that anyone interested in communism and the Soviets should own. Although this book did not meaningfully alter my thinking on the topic, it provides a masterful summary of the development of communism from 1917-1991. It also provides several more theoretical chapters typical of social science books, which allows it to move beyond a simplistic history and develop several interesting definitional arguments as well as answer broader questions about the path communism took. The book is also effective in its layout, which is broadly chronological but also divided by country and theme, making the book easy to navigate and a fantastic reference source. Brown’s work is particularly good toward the end, as it adroitly exploits Soviet archival sources to examine key decision-makers and provide a deep analysis of internal Soviet politics, something that is often missing in more theoretical discussions of communist theory. If this book has one weakness, it is that it’s heavily Soviet-focused at the expense of other communist states. Nevertheless, Brown does dedicate a chapter to Cuba and several to China. He also provides fairly extensive coverage of Eastern Europe, though not as much as some other books I’ve read. Despite these minor weaknesses, the book is a fantastic piece of scholarship and is very much worth perusing.
The Righteous Mind (by Jonathan Haidt): Jonathan Haidt is one of those rare people who is both an accomplished scholar and well-known public intellectual, and this book’s ability to clearly convey novel and complex ideas to a non-expert like myself is a testament to that. Haidt’s core argument is that humans are far more intuitive than rational. Instead of following the evidence to the truth, we use evidence to support whatever truth we want to believe. This alone is not all that interesting, and it’s an argument advanced by many prominent psychologists, economists, and political scientists. Where the book gets interesting is in its discussion of the six fundamental categories of morality – fairness, care, sanctity, loyalty, authority, and liberty – which Haidt argues undergird humans’ understanding of right and wrong. He demonstrates this in a number of ways, but perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most entertaining) is his description of several interviews he and his grad students conducted in which they pushed against people’s purported moral code. For example, Haidt tested people’s commitment to the claim that anything that doesn’t harm others is morally permissible by proposing bizarre situations, like a man sodomizing a dead chicken or using the flag as toilet paper, and asking his respondents if they considered these activities morally acceptable. His results are interesting in that they demonstrate both that people have an intuitive sense of right and wrong (but often fail to justify this with reasoned arguments) and that there exists a major divide between cultures and income groups regarding what is considered morally appropriate. Haidt then applies this argument to politics, arguing that conservatives tend to base their ideology in all six morality categories while liberals focus almost exclusively on care and fairness. In other words, conservatives offer a more comprehensive platform, giving them an edge in messaging. This is where the book gets much weaker, as Haidt never offers an explanation for why liberals and conservatives draw from different morality categories. If Democrats are content with focusing solely on care and fairness, this begs the question of how moral preferences develop in the first place and makes one wonder why a message that relies on a greater number of moral categories is preferable or even necessary. Nonetheless, Haidt develops an interesting framework that is both persuasive and applicable to a broad range of social scientific questions, and that alone makes this book a valuable contribution absolutely worth reading.
Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century (by Richard McGregor): Unlike much of the popular literature on Asian politics, this book provides a well-researched and comprehensive look at the relationship between China, Japan, and the United States. Asia’s Reckoning will likely not fundamentally upend your beliefs about Asia, as it is fairly mainstream in its analysis and arguments. However, it is absolutely packed with interesting facts, anecdotes, and stories that are the result of McGregor’s long experience with the region and liberal use of FOIA requests. In other words, McGregor is better at deepening his readers’ perspective than broadening them. I particularly appreciated McGregor’s ability to trace the shifting currents of regional relations and provide tangible examples of the difficulty Japan and China have had in coming to terms with the past. Given the ever-growing importance of the Asia-Pacific, this book represents an important contribution to the debate over U.S. foreign policy.
The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan (by Sebastian Mallaby): This is an immensely enjoyable book that provides a fair and comprehensive biography of an extremely controversial man. The financial crisis of 2008 has done much to tarnish Greenspan’s reputation, but as Mallaby demonstrates, many of the critiques of Greenspan are too simplistic. For example, Mallaby shows that Greenspan was one of the first economists to appreciate the ways in which finance can influence the real economy. Indeed, he wrote a path-breaking paper on this topic as early as 1959. Greenspan was also immensely successful at combatting inflation, which is perhaps underappreciated now given how accustomed Americans have become to low, steady price growth. However, Mallaby is no Greenspan apologist, and he comes down hard on Greenspan’s refusal to raise rates in 2004-5. Indeed, Mallaby is perhaps more critical than most in that he believes Greenspan was fully cognizant of the risks that the housing bubble posed to financial stability. As Mallaby tells it, the lack of action by Greenspan was not due to stupidity but lack of will. The book is much more than an appraisal of Greenspan’s role in causing the housing bubble, however. It discusses Greenspan’s early life in New York, the enduring presence of his mother, his relationship with Ayn Rand, and his career in politics. Mallaby also uses Greenspan’s career to address a range of important economics topics, making this book as much a history of the U.S. economy as of Alan Greenspan.