It took a bit longer than I expected to finish up the books I’ve been reading, but I’ve finally wrapped up enough to put out some more reviews.
1. Europe Since 1989: A History (by Philipp Ther): This book is tough to review because it combines a stupid, overly reductive thesis with loads of interesting empirical observations. It’s also not a history of Europe since 1989, but that is the fault of the translator/publisher, not the author: The original German title – Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent: Eine Geschichte des neoliberalen Europa – is much more accurate. Ther’s central argument is that neoliberal ideology completely dominated the thinking of post-Communist Eastern European leaders, creating large amounts of economic dislocation and suffering. To prove this, he highlights some interesting indicators, including the increasing disparity between urban and rural growth rates, aggregate GDP levels, and a comparison between the major eastern capitals. I thought many of his data points were interesting, particularly that of urban/rural economic divergence. However, his thesis is simply ridiculous, and it goes largely unproven throughout the book. Indeed, Ther’s writing is littered with comments and data that directly undermine his argument. He notes, for example, that the German government pumped around a trillion euros into the eastern federal states. He also admits that Berlin, the city with the largest level of government support, had the worst outcomes of any eastern capital he studies. But beyond the muddled evidence he musters, one is forced to wonder what his alternative would be. After all, basically any setup post-1989 would be more neoliberal than a communist system, and the delusional idea of a “third way” that he scatters throughout the book is simply not plausible. This is proven by Ther’s own writing, which offers zero reform proposals or counterfactual histories explaining how Eastern Europe could have escaped neoliberalism. It’s certainly true that the opening of statist economies created lots of dislocation and was perhaps done too rapidly, but this is not a new argument. So, at the end of the book, one is left wondering what the point is. I’d still recommend this work for anyone unfamiliar with the rough transition period Eastern Europeans faced in the 1990s and early 2000s. If you know this period well, though, there is little to glean from reading this.
2. The Euro and the Battle of Ideas (by Markus Brunnermeier): This is a simply terrific book, as it contains many variegated and interesting stand-alone chapters that address different elements of the euro crisis. Each chapter is paired with several others to form discrete sections, making the book extremely easy to navigate. It’s not worth covering each of these sections in detail, but they include, among other things, discussions of the role of national governments, the differences between French and German economic philosophy, solvency problems versus liquidity problems, and the costs and benefits of austerity. A good deal of the analysis is fairly simple and intuitive, especially for those with a good understanding of European economics. I nonetheless found much to appreciate about the book, especially its excellent bibliography. Indeed, I can confidently say that this is the best general volume on the European sovereign debt crisis by a pretty hefty margin, and I have read quite a few books on the topic by this point.
3. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow): I honestly should have read this book much sooner given how influential it has become within the IR discipline, but better late than never, I guess. The book is an analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis through three different lenses: structuralism, bureaucratic organizational theory, and individuals/bureaucratic politics. The primary argument, of course, is that the unitary rational actor model is woefully insufficient, as it neglects the important role that bureaucratic standard operating procedures and cultures play in shaping and constraining state action. I particularly enjoyed the way the book is divided, as it alternates between pure theory and history. This allows the authors to apply the different theoretical models to the same event and draw out different conclusions and points of interest every time. The result is an incredibly rich account of what went on in October of 1962 and, at the same time, a superb book on IR and organizational theory. I must confess that I was initially skeptical about how much value I would derive from this work. After all, I have read many papers and books that are derivatives of Allison and Zelikow’s theoretical models. I should not have been so skeptical. The book is excellent throughout, and it really helped me to more rigorously consider the role of bureaucracies in statecraft. Whether you study IR, history, or are just interested in how government agencies approach problems, I cannot recommend this book enough.
4. Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 (by David Johnson): This was a solid, though somewhat dry, treatment of the U.S. Army during the Interwar Period (though it also includes chapters on the world wars). The book focuses primarily on the role that bureaucratic infighting and inertia played in shaping American military doctrine and composition between the world wars. While this occasionally resulted in a level of minutia that even I found tedious, the research in this book is absolutely excellent. The real value of the book is that it offers a much more detailed and precise depiction of how the American Army became so hollowed out after World War One, as it supplements the standard narrative of low budgets and isolationist politicians with a detailed look at the military itself. In particular, Johson highlights how parochial interests and selective interpretations of the lessons of World War One led to a torturously slow transition to modern equipment and tactics. Instead of realizing the true potential of tanks and aircraft, for example, the leadership simply attached them to existing formations, assuming they would do little more than fill auxiliary support roles. These issues were compounded by a leadership largely set in their ways and resistant to change, as they feared it would result in their prized units being replaced. I think that Johnson perhaps oversells his argument a bit. After all, the U.S. was, alongside the British, the only completely mechanized army in World War Two. Moreover, there are compelling reasons to be cautious when introducing completely new equipment and technology (we are seeing this today with UCAS, for example). The book is, nevertheless, excellently sourced and well-argued. While it is a bit technical and somewhat limited in its coverage – it is far from a comprehensive look at interwar military innovation, after all – it is good at what it sets out to achieve.
5. A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War (by Murray Williamson): This is an excellent general history of World War Two that is comprehensive, fair, and well-balanced. Published in 1990, the book is far from the most recent treatment of the subject, but it is still absolutely worth reading given how well-written and thorough it is. While the book is not as good at the macro-level statistics, like industrial output and logistics, as Edgerton or Hanson’s work, it is certainly adequate. Where the book really shines, though, is in its detailed but concise coverage of their major battles and operations. It also does a fantastic job of profiling and describing the leaders, civilian and military, that directed the war. Although there is nothing particularly special about the book – it is simply a comprehensive history of World War Two – I loved it. It is detailed but fast-paced, analytical but largely unbiased, and overall just an excellent treatment of the topic. It should definitely be read by anyone seeking to learn more about the conflict, but even those who have a strong background in the literature would do well to skim through this book. I was surprised by how much I was able to learn from it!