We asked editors and contributors for suggestions about what left foreign policy enthusiasts should be reading and lighting the way with in 2020. Here are our best picks for holiday gifts for budding Kates Kizer and Stephens Wertheim in your life.
Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Cornell University Press, 1993). Every once in a while, if you’re like me and plagued by the kind of brain disease that drives you to do such a thing, you pick a classic political science monograph out of a free books bin and it turns out to be great. That happened to me this year with Myths of Empire. Writing at the end of the Cold War, Snyder was interested in a question that seemed academic then but has become vital in the years since: why do powerful, stable countries sometimes pursue foreign policies so aggressive and futile that they immiserate both the targets of the aggression and the countries themselves? What, in other words, in the hell is going on with America?
The value of Myths of Empire is in where Snyder finds the seeds of an answer. International Relations scholars are often wary of locating determinants of how countries act internationally in domestic politics — after all, domestic politics is someone else’s subfield. Snyder, though, makes a compelling case that state-based, realist explanations are inadequate to explain why world powers occasionally take leave of their senses. Instead, he argues, cartels of domestic political interests trading on imperial narratives drive countries into wars that they should never have started but seem powerless to stop. As we enter an election year that will likely be dominated by imperial narratives, Myths of Empire is an important reminder that effective political organizing is the only path toward real change in American foreign policy.
Does the overthrow of Bolivian president Evo Morales have someone on your holiday list rushing to get informed? Look no further, we’ve got the reading list to get them under any deadline!
For the Joe Hill fan: June Nash’s We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (Columbia University Press, 1993). A powerful look at the lives of Bolivian miners, the core of the country’s 20th-century working class. The miners and their families narrate their own experiences, shedding light on a tradition of labor militancy and cultural resistance.
For the Battle in Seattle veteran: Deborah Yashar’s Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Postliberal Challenge (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Yashar’s book provides the definitive framework for understanding the domestic factors that gave rise to indigenous movements in the era of globalization. Her case studies of national movements, particularly Ecuador’s, will have your loved one “putting Bolivia in regional context” in no time.
For the School of the Americas fence-jumper: Thomas Grisaffi’s Coca Yes, Cocaine No: How Bolivia’s Coca Growers Reshaped Democracy (Duke University Press, 2019). Bolivia’s powerful movement of coca cultivators, through whose ranks Evo rose, blends industrial organization with identity-based claims. As Grisaffi explores in his fieldwork, the cocaleros are embedded in global commodity markets shaped by US drug policy and military actions, generating contradictory forces that carried Evo to power but heavily constrained his policies.
For the niece/nephew that asked you for help with a school paper: Christopher Kendris and Theodore Kendris’ Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs (Barron’s Educational Services). No more Wordreference for you, kid. You’re going to learn the way the rest of us did. You’ll thank me someday.
For true experts only: A printed copy of No Universal Prescription for the Universal Condition, signed by the author. This FTB article challenges the dominant paradigm in current studies of civil resistance movements like the one that unseated Evo. Price upon request.
A subscription to Jewish Currents. The 73-year-old left-wing Jewish periodical, where I serve as news editor, makes a wonderful gift for Jews and gentiles alike this holiday season. In addition to our coverage of culture, labor, and Jewish institutional politics, Fellow Travelers fans will appreciate our thorough reporting and analysis on the Middle East. We are uncompromisingly against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and the Blob’s imperialist agenda in the wider region. Just $30 will get your loved one three gorgeous print issues and a bonus winter gift, while also supporting independent left-wing media that directly challenges the powerful and gives voice to the marginalized. Here’s a recent feature about the deepening alliance between Israel’s and India’s Islamophobic, ethnonationalist governments, to give you an idea of the kind of work you can support by subscribing here.
A subscription to Foreign Exchanges. If you know someone who’d enjoy learning more about international affairs and US foreign policy, then consider a gift subscription to Foreign Exchanges. They’ll receive nightly world news roundups delivered to their inbox, plus essays, a weekly podcast, and some new features for 2020! If you’re not subscribed, check out the site and maybe give yourself a little something this Christmas!
MPOWERD Inflatable Social Lantern (Luci). Are there dark days ahead? To quote the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, “Of course I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.” Assuming it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness (though I suspect there’s be plenty of cursing ahead as well), what better way to do so than with an inflatable solar lantern? Whether you find yourself in the political wilderness, the actual wilderness, or rolling blackouts made necessary by the coming climate apocalypse, this little device will give you enough glow to find your way around. Deluxe versions come with USB plugs – tack it onto a backpack while walking around canvassing to make sure your phone gets to that last name on the turf list!
Our book reviewers
Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019). Generally, we are conditioned to believe that the international system is on rails, hurtling toward an ever-more neoliberal future with no opportunities to choose a different path. Good history can remind us that no such rails exist, and that different paths were possible before and will be again. Worldmaking After Empire is a brilliant example of that kind of history. By focusing on the work of anti-colonial thinkers from the Black Atlantic, Getachew demonstrates the breadth and depth of progressive internationalist thinking in the 20th century.
“Getachew highlights the vast intellectual work that anti-colonial thinkers put into transforming [regressive models of self-determination] in order to enfuse self-determination with the possibilities of national liberation,” writes Alden Young. “We often label these anti-colonial thinkers ‘nationalists’, but that label ignores the full breadth of their revolutionary thought which was never focused solely on the independence of isolated nation-states, but rather on creating international institutions that would effectively replace empire as the basis of world order and level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.”
Getachew’s book is wide-ranging, compelling, and highly recommended.
Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). As the concept of American Empire gradually enters the mainstream consciousness, it’s useful to have a book to both help it along and explain why it took so long to get there in the first place. Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire fills that niche admirably by digging into the imperial realities that the maps you saw in school obscured.
“Reading ‘How to Hide an Empire’ is a good first step for any policy maker or presidential aspirant seeking to quickly get up to speed on the history, persistent, and continued salience of imperialism….Immerwahr does not set out to be the final word on empire, but for those in search of a first word, this is an excellent place to start,” writes Kelsey D. Atherton. “The throughline of territory makes visible what euphemisms like ‘areas of responsibility’ actively obscures. The rest of the world operates without illusions about the shape and nature of American Empire. It’s time everyone inside the imperial hub did, too.”
People already well-versed in the reach of American Empire may find the book remedial, but for people just starting out on their rediscovery of American history, How to Hide an Empire is a valuable resource.
Perhaps you have someone more entrepreneurial on your holiday gift list. They’ve noticed that we are in a boom period for foreign policy grifting, and they’re looking to set up their own snake oil shop to cash in on the wave. What can you buy a man (and the grifters are overwhelmingly men) who believes in nothing? We have some suggestions for items that no threat-inflating, civility-fetishizing, political correctness-decrying hack should be without this holiday season.
That one Joe Biden ad, on Blu-ray. The main idea of this ad, and of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, is that the problem with Donald Trump is he’s too gauche to be president. Setting aside questions of Joe Biden’s qualifications to judge gaucheness, that idea is a powerful grift. It trades on a relationship between Biden and a white base that feel the ill effects of living in Trump’s America largely through the pervading sense that, somewhere to the north, blackface enthusiast Justin Trudeau is snickering at Our Great Country. For people who experience the Trump administration through, say, ICE raids in their communities, and who have policy priorities besides the president being rated Hot or Not by the G20, the ad offers nothing.
Of course, the Washington chattering class overwhelmingly belongs to the former group, which is why the grift is so clever. Response to the ad from pundits was overwhelmingly positive, focusing on the idea that Trump himself will be annoyed by it. Running for president on the platform of annoying the sitting president is titillating for people who make their living on Beltway narratives, and that titillation gives Biden the cover he needs from the media to go on offering exactly zero new policy ideas to face down the national and planetary challenges upon us.
A beautiful dinner in a Napa wine cave. Upon receipt of this gift, secured with a minor contribution of $2800 on your part, you are transported to a lux evening at a famous winery in California. A man with a perfect CV in a room full of people with perfect CVs describes his plan to remake America anew. It sounds the same as any other plan said by any other presidential aspirant standing there, asking for support in the election. But this time it’s you sitting there and watching the way the chandelier casts little pieces of refracted light on the crystals adorning both the people and the decor. You feel his eyes rest on you at a break between words; you feel the calculation as it happens: what is your monetary value? Are you worth more or less than any other in this room? And what of the people outside the room? Outside the soft string music and warm glow? Well, they’re hardly worth thinking of, are they? If they meant something they would be here. And he’s so very…driven.
Golan Heights And Other Geopolitical Concerns In 30 Seconds Or Less. We are living in a golden age of grifters, and there is perhaps no more perfect mark for a grift than the President, an ouroboros of grifting and being grifted. He is the man watching cable news as it sells brain pills to the elderly and afraid, and he is the man on cable news, telling viewers that if only they bought brain pills, they could be like him, and unafraid of the world.
This dynamic collapses in on itself during presidential rallies, and they distort time and memory around them, the way black holes for a dull sucking nullity that consumes all around it. This is to say: at a rally on December 8th, President Trump asked to be grifted, and revealed the low, low bar with which he accepts a grift.
The president told a story about asking an aide to distill a complex issue in 30 seconds or less, and then repeated that distillation as eight words, which might take a total of seven seconds to say, if the speaker is talking very slowly. What did the President need to know about the Golan Heights before becoming the second country, other than Israel, to recognize the occupied heights as part of Israel? The aide told the president that the Golan Heights were high, important, sovereign, and about security. That’s it.
For this grift, simply skim the introduction paragraph of a Simple English Wikipedia article, and then make a pact with whatever authoritarian government stands to gain the most from exploiting a simplistic translation of geopolitical events. If the mark is the president, you’re done. If, instead, you are a private consulting firm, specializing in explaining and managing geopolitical risk for wealthy but otherwise unworldly clients, the grift has three further steps: quietly ignore and repression done by the country in which your client wants to do business, show them a puppet show about how only foolish leaders don’t accept that this is a good investment, and then submit an op-ed to a general interest publication when the country strips citizenship from millions of vulnerable people.
Saudi Aramco stock. In America we know that stocks are the gift that keeps on giving, and whether it’s belching carbon into the atmosphere or dropping ordinance on Yemeni school buses, no new 2019 stock offering promises to give more than a few shares of Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco. Be a part of history—literally—by investing in a company that’s helping to make civilization a happy memory! And consider this: every share you buy could help fund massive new Saudi arms purchases from beleaguered US defense contractors! At the very least, it’s another $9 or so that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman won’t have to extort from his rich cousins! Buy today!
A Grand Strategy for a Great Power Conflict. Tired of having to keep all those non-state actors straight? Daunted by the prospect of learning languages, studying histories, or understanding the deep legacies of Empire? Never fear, for now we are back to the era of Great Power Competition! Now you, too, can be a Master Strategist of US foreign policy by reading only 2M2W – Morgenthau, Mearscheimer, Waltz and Walt – and talking gravely about hard power, Grand Strategy, balancing, and attack surfaces.
The grift is fairly straightforward. First, pick the Great Power opponent the US needs to be most concerned about. Is it China? Or is it Russia? Or is it both??? No difference! It’s not like you’ll be reading that much more about either country in any case. It’s easy enough to get a best-selling book off the ground by using Henry Kissinger and Lee Kuan Yew as your go-to sources for everything you need to know about China. Likewise, you can always cherry-pick Reuters articles to argue that Russia is running away with the Great Game for the Middle East rather than, say, actually checking as to whether this is the case.
Think of how much easier this is than trying to pretend you actually had any idea how to fight and win against a slow-burning insurgency, or any understanding of why the US was doing so to begin with – though if you want to get inventive, there’s still room to combine your interests. No need to ask questions like why our present-day Navy is fixing minesweepers with dishwasher parts and accidentally running destroyers into container ships even as the Pentagon signs off on ever-more-expensive and ever-more-inadequate ships! Likewise, no need to ever read up on what AFRICOM is doing – though if anybody asks, gesture towards renewed Soviet ambitions or Chinese resource imperialism!