I took the final revision class at the University, wished the students good luck, and came out thinking what a year it had been! My PhD is halfway through, all the theoretical chapters are done, and now I’m moving on to the empirical chapters. I almost got back to full-time column writing for so many different publications as well! Not quite my old journalism life, but close enough.
So what now? A month of peace, to say the least. No teaching, but focusing on research, writing, and some casual reading as well. Bliss.
I was talking to a friend of mine across the pond, and showed her my reading list suggestions for the holidays, and she was a tad surprised that there were no fiction in it. Had me questioning, do we need fiction anymore in life, after the last couple of years or is life already strange enough?
I’m a prosaic man almost reaching my mid-thirties, stiff upper lip and all that, but in light of the trend lines in our planet, here’s my Holiday reading list suggestions for the readers. You lot be the judge!
This was a book written in 2009, immediately after the short six-day war, between Russia and Georgia. It was a curious little war, and the author, diplomat Ronald Asmus, who did major work on the NATO expansion in the east, died soon after the publication of the book. I read it almost half a decade back, and this book was one of the reasons, I started researching on Russian military (this, and The Hunt for the Red October). It’s obvious now that we look back to the Munich Conference of 2007 as the first big break post Cold war, and a sign of things to come, but if one needs to read up on a short history of NATO expansion plans in Ukraine and Georgia and the time period of the colour revolutions, and Russian deep discomfort which turned to anger at NATO frontiers moving Eastward (more on that), in what it considered its traditional sphere of influence, this is a good book to start with.
What is it about the Second World wars, that still needs to be read? There are thousands of books written on it, but none so like this one, by world’s foremost living classicist Victor Davis Hanson. This book looks at humanity’s greatest existential war, from a historical distance, looking at how empires and nation states behaved the way they did, and why, the balance of power and deterrence failed. It also tries to thematically answer the questions of great power wars, long thought to be obsolete in the Utopian thinking post Cold war, but is now back, in the thought process of researchers, analysts and policy makers. You should read this book, because even when actors change, the character of the international system remains the same and patterns emerge. Also, because it is written by Victor Davis Hanson. That should be reason enough, in my opinion.
Continuing on this theme, my third recommendation is quite possibly my favourite one. Navy always had a special place in my heart. Of all the services, nothing is quite as glamorous, adventurous, and classy as the “senior service”. But this book is important for reasons other than the fact that it deals with the greatest Navy ever to have dominated the globe in the history of humanity. It is the idea that nothing is static, and history is the biggest leveler of them all. British Royal Navy was not always the greatest, Spanish, Dutch and even French navies were stronger at several eras. But this little island went on to create a force, not just famous for its greatest naval victories over the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, Barbary Wars or sinking of the Bismarck. But due to its contribution to humanity.
There was a time, after Trafalgar, that the entire world for the next one hundred and fifty years never dared to challenge the Royal Navy. That time frame is unparalleled in the history of global domination, by any great power, superpower, hegemon or empire. Unchallenged by its peer rivals, with all global trade routes secured for every great power in the world, the force then went on to discover new worlds, including polar expeditions, and creating new naval charts and maps, and in turn distributed them to all the trading nations, for free. The amount of scientific discovery that happened during the late Victorian and Edwardian era is still incomparable and the debt humanity owes to this small island and its gigantic Navy is similarly impossible to ever repay. It also however shows, that nothing is permanent. Empires rise and fall, and sometimes rise again. British Naval power had its share of ebbs and flows. With the cuts to the Royal Navy happening under a (nominally) Conservative government, this book gives hope, that maybe someday, the glorious history will be repeated.
After all, China ruled Asia for millennia, before being subjugated for two centuries, and is now back again as a great power. Same with a revanchist Russia, back after a quarter century of relative decline. Whether these actors are good or bad for the international system is beyond the point, and that depends on your individual perspective. As an academic, and a Realist, that’s not for me to judge. The matter of fact remains that History, in the Hegelian sense, is cyclical, something humans forget all the time. Healthy, civic nationalism is a force for the good, and all it needs is a few Churchillian, genuinely patriotic leaders.
This, is perhaps a bit niche, for most of you. But very important, nevertheless. This book traces the roots of Political Realism, especially classical Realism in International Relations theory. Realism as a tradition, even though tracing its roots to Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli, is not the same as Realism as an IR theory, which is relatively new, and caught momentum only after WWII. But as it is opposed to liberalism, is it then conservative? And if it is conservative, does that make it illiberal by definition?
Morgenthau wrote about the “incompatibility between the rational requirements of a sound foreign policy and emotional preferences of a democratically controlled public opinion”, something which has been mostly forgotten ever since. Autocratic states decide on diplomacy faster. The Concert of Europe between Great powers and the resulting peace, would not possibly have taken place, given current polarized media and geopolitical scenario. Or Kissinger’s secret trip to China which solidified the Sino-Soviet rift, is unlikely in the Twitter age. Diplomacy needs secrecy. The massive expansion of government bureaucracy, as well as global think tanks form their own pressure points and acquire lobbying powers, which classical Realists would oppose. Just as Classical Realists would oppose loyalty to some transnational ideology, like Marxism, or Liberalism, or Islamism, simply because that would decrease your loyalty to your government, country and leader.
These are important questions to ponder, but this book doesn’t answer them. It makes you think, and ponder yourself. And even though I have my reservations about the “poisoned origin fallacy” with regards to Realism as an IR theory and Carl Schmitt, I recommend everyone to read this book. But as I mentioned before, bit niche…so don’t blame me, if you find all the theoretical stuff boring! At least it might work for those of you with insomnia.
What do you guys think? Any suggestions for me? Write them down in the comments below. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you.