The Best of Books 2019

David Plunkert

The best books we reviewed this year, selected by Foreign Affairs editors and book reviewers.

Editors’ Picks

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Keefe’s fine, searching book shows that the political agreement formally resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland marked only the beginning of a long, agonizing, and fitful process of reconciliation.

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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

by Shoshana Zuboff

Zuboff’s book is a brilliant, arresting analysis of the digital economy and a plea for a social awakening about the enormity of the changes that technology is imposing on political and social life.

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They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate

by James Verini

Verini spent months embedded with Iraqi forces and writes beautifully about the toll of war on Iraqi society. His book is a marvelously reported, first-person account of the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State (or ISIS).

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Political and Legal

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

by Adam Gopnik

Gopnik paints a sweeping portrait of modern liberalism’s founding principles and accomplishments. He eloquently makes the case for the theory’s continued relevance in today’s struggle to build decent and inclusive societies.

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Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971–2017

by Simon Reid-Henry

In this massive, kaleidoscopic history, Reid-Henry finds the roots of the crisis of modern liberal democracy in the early 1970s, in the subtle changes that conspired to erode the consensus-oriented model of democracy that had emerged after World War II.

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What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea

by James Traub

As liberals grapple with rising populism and authoritarianism, Traub turns to history and theory to reclaim liberalism’s principles. His book mounts one of the best efforts of this kind yet.

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Economic | Social | Environmental

Keeping At It: The Quest for Sound Money and Good Government

by Paul A. Volcker with Christine Harper

This frugal and charming autobiography is filled with illuminating stories from Volcker’s seven decades of public service, from abandoning the last vestiges of the gold standard to dealing with the 2008 financial crisis.

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Firefighting: The Financial Crisis and Its Lessons

by Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

This collaboration by the three officials who led the fight in the United States against the financial crisis of 2008 presents a mature and revealing assessment of the meltdown and the U.S. government’s efforts to halt it.

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Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital

by Kimberly Clausing

Amid a growing backlash against international economic interdependence, Clausing makes a strong case in favor of foreign trade in goods and services, the cross-border movement of capital, and immigration.

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Military | Scientific | Technological

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975

by Max Hastings

In this masterly and engrossing account, Hastings explores three decades of conflict in Vietnam from the bottom up as well as the top down, describing the chaos of battle in a war of ambushes and without obvious frontlines.

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Atlas of World War II: History’s Greatest Conflict Revealed Through Rare Wartime Maps and New Cartography

by Stephen G. Hyslop

More than 100 new maps illuminate many of the most important battles and campaigns of World War II. The stars of the book are the reproductions of maps first produced as part of the war effort.

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Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation Is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists

by Audrey Kurth Cronin

In this meticulously researched book, Cronin argues that governments must develop countermeasures to preempt militant groups from co-opting technological innovations to catastrophic effect.

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The United States

Reconstruction: A Concise History

by Allen C. Guelzo

Guelzo offers a concise, clear, and temperate account of the failure of Reconstruction. Never losing sight of the cause of newly freed slaves, he underscores southern governments’ weakness and the collapse of political will in the North.

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The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order

by Hal Brands and Charles Edel

Brands and Edel argue that U.S. foreign policy should be less about building utopia than about preventing disaster. Unless met with resolute American power, countries such as China, Iran, and Russia will return the world to an age of catastrophic war.

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Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today

edited by James M. Banner, Jr.

The book is a fascinating glimpse into misconduct by every administration from George Washington’s through Barack Obama’s—and a look at the disappointing weaknesses of the remedies available to deter or punish presidential malfeasance.

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Western Europe

Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage

by Luuk van Middelaar

Part insider memoir and part commentary, van Middelaar’s is probably the best analysis yet to appear of how the European Union managed its recent crises over refugees, Ukraine, and the euro.

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Of Privacy and Power: The Transatlantic Struggle Over Freedom and Security

by Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman

Globalization affects an ever-widening range of regulatory matters. Farrell and Newman examine recent disputes between the United States and its European partners over transnational flows of information, showing how complex and fraught such negotiations tend to be.

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Plugging In the British: Completing the Circuit

by Sophia Besch, Ian Bond, and Camino Mortera-Martinez

The authors explain how sober Brexit negotiations with the EU could preserve most current forms of cooperation under another name—but that the changes that must occur will generally disadvantage the United Kingdom.

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Western Hemisphere

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

by Camilla Townsend

Townsend rejects the portrayal of the Aztecs as driven by blood lust, superstition, and fatalism. Her book is a landmark masterpiece, powerful in its precision and subtle in its weaving of tragedy and glory.

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Lost Children Archive: A Novel

by Valeria Luiselli

In this novel, Luiselli combines literary brilliance, empathetic politics, and a dazzling imagination. She envisions the American Southwest as desolate and haunted by genocide, a xenophobic wasteland occupied by a brutal border patrol.

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Report of the Expert Advisory Group on Anti-Corruption, Transparency, and Integrity in Latin America and the Caribbean

by Eduardo Engel, Delia Ferreira Rubio, Daniel Kaufmann, Armando Lara Yaffar, Jorge Londoño Saldarriaga, Beth Simone Noveck, Mark Pieth, and Susan Rose-Ackerman

This all-star team of eight governance and anticorruption experts has produced a powerful indictment of Latin American institutions. The authors condemn both public and private elites for undermining good policymaking and entrenching impunity.

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Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics

Russian “Hybrid Warfare”: Resurgence and Politicisation

by Ofer Fridman

The modern concept of war fought by multiple means, on and off the battlefield, originated with the U.S. military. The current, more expansive Russian version reflects what its Russian authors believe were the West’s own methods of waging the Cold War, which they now see being used against Russia once again.

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Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse

by Ethan Pollock

Pollock has produced a rarity: a work of solid scholarship that is also an elegant page-turner. It traces the history of the Russian steam bath all the way back to the Middle Ages, exploring how its image and function have shifted over time.

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An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent

by Owen Matthews

Matthews’s book is a spy thriller that doubles as an enthralling history of revolutionary Germany in the 1920s, Tokyo during the country’s prewar militarization, and Moscow in the 1930s.

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Middle East

Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness

by Kenneth M. Pollack

Arab militaries have always performed poorly. Pollack, who has studied them for nearly two decades, exhaustively explores four explanations for their ineffectiveness: their reliance on Soviet military doctrine, the politicization of the officer corps, economic underdevelopment, and Arab culture.

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Inside Tunisia’s al-Nahda: Between Politics and Preaching

by Rory McCarthy

McCarthy travels to Tunisia’s heartland to understand the mindset of devotees of the country’s major Islamic movement, al Nahda, which abandoned its mission of religious transformation in 2016 to become an exclusively political party.

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The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924

by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi

Morris and Ze’evi tie together the three waves of killing that swept across the Christian population of Anatolia (in modern-day Turkey) from 1894 to 1924. Their book is a gut-wrenching chronicle of human depravity that shows how ordinary people can become barbarians.

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Asia and Pacific

Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement

by Ming-Sho Ho

This penetrating, theoretically informed study analyzes the large protest movements that erupted in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2014. Ho suggests that similar resistance may emerge elsewhere if China pushes too hard.

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The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

by Anna Fifield

Kim Jong Un was an unlikely heir to the North Korean throne, but from the regime’s perspective, he turned out to be a brilliant choice. If he survives to hand power to a fourth generation, “the most Machiavellian figure of our time” will have achieved a remarkable feat.

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Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community

by Richard J. Samuels

This engrossing history of Japanese intelligence demonstrates how recent reforms have made Japan a better security partner for the United States while preparing the country to stand on its own if the U.S. security guarantee loses its credibility.

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Taxing Africa: Coercion, Reform, and Development

by Mick Moore, Wilson Prichard, and Odd-Helge Fjeldstad

Taxation in Africa remains poorly understood. The authors of this concise and masterly introduction to the topic go some way toward filling that gap. They explain why African tax systems are highly regressive, with poorer citizens paying much higher rates than richer ones.

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Reel Pleasures: Cinema Audiences and Entrepreneurs in Twentieth-Century Urban Tanzania

by Laura Fair

This superb social history of cinema in Tanzania is rich with keen insights into urban life in East Africa throughout the twentieth century. Fair is equally at ease discussing midcentury international film distribution networks as she is explaining the local appeal of obscure Indian movies.

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Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era Is Transforming Politics in Kenya

by Nanjala Nyabola

This survey develops some keen insights into the social and political effects of the Internet in Kenya. Nyabola’s conclusions are far from optimistic, exploring how social media may come to undermine Kenyan democracy.

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