Top 10 books every International Relations students should read

August 3, 2016

Top 10 books every International Relations students should read

A summer reading list.

by Stephen M. Walt

My “top ten” books every student of International Relations should read

My “top ten” books every student of International Relations should read

Last week Tom Ricks offered us his “Top Ten list” of books any student of military history should read. The FP staff asked me to follow suit with some of my favorites from the world of international politics and foreign policy. What follows aren’t necessarily the books I’d put on a graduate syllabus; instead, here are ten books that either had a big influence on my thinking, were a pleasure to read, or are of enduring value for someone trying to make sense of contemporary world politics. But I’ve just scratched the surface here, so I invite readers to contribute their own suggestions.

1). Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War.

An all-time classic, which I first read as a college sophomore. Not only did M, S & W provide an enduring typology of different theories of war (i.e., locating them either in the nature of man, the characteristics of states, or the anarchic international system), but Waltz offers incisive critiques of these three “images” (aka “levels of analysis.”) Finding out that this book began life as Waltz’s doctoral dissertation was a humbling moment in my own graduate career.

2). Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Combines biology and macro-history in a compelling fashion, explaining why small differences in climate, population, agronomy, and the like turned out to have far-reaching effects on the evolution of human societies and the long-term balance of power. An exhilarating read.

3). Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence.

He’s a Nobel Prize winner now, so one expects a lot of smart ideas. Some of Schelling’s ideas do not seem to have worked well in practice (cf. Robert Pape’sBombing to Win and Wallace Thies’s When Governments Collide) but more than anyone else, Schelling taught us all to think about military affairs in a genuinely strategic fashion. (The essays found in Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict are more technical but equally insightful). And if only more scholars wrote as well.

4). James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

This isn’t really a book about international relations, but it’s a fascinating exploration of the origins of great human follies (like Prussian “scientific forestry” or Stalinist collectivized agriculture). Scott pins the blame for these grotesque man-made disasters on centralized political authority (i.e., the absence of dissent) and “totalistic” ideologies that sought to impose uniformity and order in the name of some dubious pseudo-scientific blueprint. And it’s a book that aspiring “nation-builders” and liberal interventionists should read as an antidote to their own ambitions. Reading Scott’s work (to include his Weapons of the Weak and Domination and the Arts of Resistance) provided the intellectual launching pad for my book  Taming American Power).

5). David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest.

Stayed up all night reading this compelling account of a great national tragedy, and learned not to assume that the people in charge knew what they were doing. Still relevant today, no?

6). Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics.

I read this while tending bar at the Stanford Faculty Club in 1977 (the Stanford faculty weren’t big drinkers so I had a lot of free time). Arguably still the best single guide to the ways that psychology can inform our understanding of world politics. Among other things, it convinced that I would never know as much history as Jervis does. I was right.

7). John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

Why do bad things happen to good peoples? Why do “good states” do lots of bad things? Mearsheimer tells you. Clearly written, controversial, and depressingly persuasive.

8). Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism.

The state is the dominant political form in the world today, and nationalism remains a powerful political force. This book will help you understand where it came from and why it endures.

9). Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years & Years of Upheaval.

Memoirs should always be read with a skeptical eye, and Kissinger’s are no exception. But if you want some idea of what it is like to run a great power’s foreign policy, this is a powerfully argued and often revealing account. And Kissinger’s portraits of his colleagues and counterparts are often candid and full of insights. Just don’t take it at face value.

10). Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

Where did the modern world come from, and what are the political, economic, and social changes that it wrought? Polanyi doesn’t answer every question, but he’s a good place to start.

So that’s ten, but I can’t resist tossing in a few others in passing: Geoffrey Blainey The Causes of War; Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History; Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population; Robert Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars; T.C.W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars; R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War; Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies; Tony Smith, The Problem of Imperlalism; and Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker. And as I said, this just scratches the surface.

So what did I miss? Keep the bar high.

(And for those of you who don’t have time to read books, I’ll start working on a “top ten” list of articles).

9 thoughts on “Top 10 books every International Relations students should read

  1. …and what about your top ten books, Dato Din?
    You should read them. Good for you as it will prevent you from sending me one liners.–Din Merican

  2. Quote:- “…and what about your top ten books, Dato Din?
    You should read them. Good for you as it will prevent you from sending me one liners.–Din Merican”

    Ah, we can safely assume that you have read half of those on the list since you replied with a two-liner?

    I have been dealing with smart asses like you all my life. Your response is not out of the ordinary. You don’t take criticisms readily and hence your sarcastic response. Your inflated ego won’t get you very far.

    I teach International Relations at The University of Cambodia, in case you don’t know.I have read all of them and more. I started my career as a foreign service officer in the 196Os long before you were born (I assume) and have kept up with my reading about the subject ever since.–Din Merican

  3. You should include something from George Friedan or Robert D. Kaplan. Those guys really educated me on international relations. Their works are a pleasure to read.


    Let me have their ISBN Nos and titles and I will make sure that they are bought for our library. Please feel free to suggest others. I have Chomsky, Chalmers, Morganthau, Kissinger, Theodore White, Zinn, Cornell West, and others in my personal collection. Thanks.–Din

  4. Too bad…cause where no malice intended, this was the conclusion. The one-liner should mean…what about your personal list of top ten books that shape your thought, it would be interesting to hear your own list since you have put out so many books in your blog.

    Anyway, no offence taken. Simply the impersonal internet reality.

  5. I’ve read a few books on Mr.Merican’s list.

    Folks should also consider :

    (1) Robert Fisk – The Great War for Civilization
    Pity the Nation – Lebanon at war

    (2) Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan

    (3) Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations by Michael Walzer

    (4) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy
    Thanks for your suggestions, Conrad. I read Kennedy’s book some time ago. Kaplan’s book is interesting. I will order a copy for myself.–Din Merican

  6. In addition to Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”, an even better starting point for anyone who is interested in international relations of the present era is “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” by Samuel Huntington.

    Many of Polanyi’s ideas and observations have been overtaken by significant global events particularly the cold war culminating in fall of the iron curtain in Berlin, on which Huntington’s new world order is premised upon.

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