Realist Review’s Pandemic Reading List

The Committee on Moral Books, Jehan Georges Vibert (1840-1902)

By Realist Review writers and staff

It’s been a long summer, made longer still by the synchronous cataclysms of pandemic, economic collapse, social unrest and the ongoing international scourge of scary-looking murder hornets. What to do? Lay on the couch and read, of course! Our writers and staff have been working hard at it, tackling a number of edificatory tomes all from the socially-distanced, murder hornet-proof comfort of their living spaces.

Let’s hear from a few of them about what they’ve been reading. 

Christina Mary, Writer

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen 

My quarantine read was Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Gessen provides the perspective of Russian individuals living in different parts of Russia and all feeling the effects of the regime change from the Soviet Union, to the years under Boris Yeltsen, and finally, to the years under Vladmir Putin. The book’s namesake is derived from Gessen’s observation of the return to a totalitarian style government under Vladmir Putin, with the political alignment of a strong state and church. Gessen also records theories on sociology and psychology about the Russian people including Homo Sovieticus, an analysis from sociologist Alexsandr Zinovyev about personality traits of individuals living in post-Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries. Marina Arutyunyan’s study of Russian generations is also studied in Gessen’s book. Gessen’s work portrays a more personalized, human perspective of the Russian regime changes of the 1990’s and how individuals learned to survive to live and create change of their own in a nation of uncertainty in the governmental realm. 

Ethan Kessler, Writer

The Hard Years by Eugene J. McCarthy.

Senator McCarthy (no, not that one) was a notoriously distant and erudite politician, reportedly more fond of reading Cicero and writing poetry of his own than actually politicking. McCarthy is known to most Americans as the first antiwar candidate of 1968, that tumultuous year in U.S. politics when the Great Society’s arc of progress was shattered by assassinations and riots, and when an election defined by the Vietnam War ended three decades of liberal hegemony in Washington. McCarthy’s legendary victory over sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson in March of that year led a fatally doomed Bobby Kennedy to run for president against the war, culminating in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race. 

Only a year after Watergate, McCarthy offers his thoughts on the America that had since followed, picking apart national institutions as obviously damaged as the Congress and the federal police agencies, along with those whose rot is far less obvious. McCarthy’s observations of the latter type prove the most interesting. He notes that past presidents both left and right are responsible for personalizing the office to unconstitutionally imperial lengths, foreshadowing the current president’s ability to publicly repudiate members of his own party with impunity; that the Orwellian military establishment obfuscates its illegal and immoral war activities by Latin-izing and Greco-izing language, a prescient observation given contemporary national security phrases such as “escalate to de-escalate”; and that “philosophy, policy, and program are out of phase,” a kind way of putting the mess of forever wars and other self-fulfilling policy failures effected by administrations of both parties. Foreign policy conversations often assume states’ national interests without considering how those interests are formed, or how these processes may be corrupted. McCarthy lets readers see how the sausage is made, holding little back in the process.

Alison O’Neil, Writer

The Kill Chain by Chris Brose

The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon by Kathleen J. McInnis

Monsoon by Robert Kaplan

Lately I’ve been sinking my teeth into a number of political reads, but one that stood out as especially impactful (mostly because it was released so recently — April 2020) was Chris Brose’s The Kill Chain. Named for the process militaries use to guide decision-making, The Kill Chain discusses the US military bureaucracy’s technological shortcomings with respect to advances such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. As Brose argues, the gulf between the private sector and the US military — not to mention the financial incentives that currently drive development among defense contractors — have left the US military unable to “close the kill chain.” While US contractors are excellent at developing higher-tech versions of old defense platforms, Brose argues, none of these platforms can “talk to each other” in order to coordinate rapid decision-making in the battlespace. This leaves the American military vulnerable to exploitation by adversaries previously thought technologically inferior — namely Russia and China, which have both grown adept at leveraging asymmetrical attacks against the United States. Brose’s book marks a well-researched admonition to a bureaucracy inclined towards path dependence: complacency now is defeat down the road.

Speaking of Russia and path-dependent bureaucracy, I’m currently working my way through Kathleen J. McInnis’s novel The Heart of War (yes, I’m sure that’s a Sun Tzu pun). McInnis, currently a fellow at the Transatlantic Security Initiative, seamlessly integrates defense bureaucracy know-how, a scintillating sense of humor, and a keen understanding of the complexity of life in Washington, both on the political and personal level. Fiction provides a welcome respite from the nonfiction analyses I’m accustomed to reading, and McInnis’s novel offers an entertaining look at the defense bureaucracy shaped by personal experience within the walls of the Pentagon.

Last on my list, Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon, a geopolitical analysis of the Indian Ocean and its littorals, is also a great summer read. Monsoon reads like a cross between Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History and a South Asia travel guide, and reading Kaplan’s takes on the Sino-Indian relationship helped contextualize the Pangong Tso border tensions a couple of months ago. Kaplan takes a deep dive into naval geopolitics and South Asia’s complex international relationships, as well as the internal politics of various South Asian states. I’d recommend it for all fans of Mackinder, Mahan, or Rick Steves.

Scott Strgacich, Editor-in-Chief

Bishops and the Politics of Patronage in Merovingian Gaul by Gregory I. Halfond.

Masters of the Universe?: NATO’s Balkan Crusade edited by Tariq Ali

I’m reading lots of books right now but lately I’ve been in a bit of a medieval mood – early medieval to be precise. I recently finished Bishops and the Politics of Patronage in Merovingian Gaul written by Framingham State University’s Gregory Halfond and published by Cornell University Press. It’s an illuminating scholarly survey on how the bishops of early post-Roman France navigated the vagaries of Frankish politics as a corporate body. They advised, cajoled and debated their way through the halls of power in a divided realm that was largely rooted in two key sources of order. As Yale’s Thomas Friedman once memorably said, these are “thugs” and “miracles.” In a world order so deeply dissociated from the Roman hegemony of old, it’s a telling assessment of how social and international systems will always try to find some common pillar on which to rest even in the midst of an inexorable process of decentralization. I’m now on to a biography of King Edward the Elder.  

In the non-medieval realm, I’ve been mesmerized by Masters of the Universe?: NATO’s Balkan Crusade, published by Verso Books. Edited by the great political and sociological historian Tariq Ali, it is a collection of essays from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and many others critiquing NATO’s armed intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. It has changed my perspective of a conflict with which realists often struggle to contend. This arguably “successful” humanitarian intervention, heralded by liberals, has a darker side. From supporting the ambitions of an ethnonationalist Croat regime during the 1995 Bosnian War to the high altitude bombing of Kosovo in 1999 which wrought significant civilian carnage, NATO’s intervention had a cost as ghastly as any Western war in the Middle East. These essays are a must-read for any student of liberal hegemony and interventionism. 






One response to “Realist Review’s Pandemic Reading List”

  1. […] been lucky enough to write about Xinjiang’s controversial cotton, review a few IR books for Realist Review, and co-author a piece on Taiwan via Georgetown’s The Diplomatic […]

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