James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Five Foreign Policy Books the Next President Should Read

by James M. Lindsay
January 20, 2016

MacLeod's used bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia . (Andy Clark/Courtesy Reuters) MacLeod's used bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Andy Clark/Courtesy Reuters)


Inauguration Day is now exactly one year away. In 366 days—2016 is a Leap Year—one of the candidates now barnstorming Iowa and New Hampshire will take the oath of office. Everything will change the moment he, or she, says the constitutionally mandated words, “I do solemnly swear….” Campaigning is about promises; governing is about choices.

But making wise choices—and making sure they are carried out—is easier said than done. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates noted earlier this week, running a government is “different than business. It’s different than surgery. It’s different than anything else. It’s a skill set that you bring based on experience and based on dealing with other people.”

The challenge of making government work—and the consequences for getting it wrong—may be the greatest when it comes to foreign policy. Which is why I hope that in between giving speeches and plotting campaign strategy the candidates are reading widely on how to be effective foreign policy decision-makers. A lot of books can be helpful on that score. Here are five that I would recommend:

Robert M. Gates, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform From Fifty Years of Public Service. Gates knows a thing or two about U.S. foreign policy. He started out as an entry level analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, worked on the staff of the National Security Council, and eventually became director of Central Intelligence and then secretary of defense. When someone of Gates’s experience and accomplishments offers advice on how to make the federal bureaucracy work, you probably should listen.

Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Goldstein set out to understand why the United States went to war in Vietnam. In doing so, he deftly teased out six lessons that every president would be wise to heed. My favorite? “Conviction without rigor is a recipe for disaster.”

Morton Halperin and Priscilla Clapp with Arnold Kanter, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy. We like to imagine that presidents order and bureaucrats execute. But as Halperin, Clapp, and Kanter show, the compendium of departments, agencies, offices, and bureaus that make up the U.S. government often substitute their own interests, visions, and judgments for those of the White House. If presidents want the bureaucracy to do their bidding, they need to understand the myriad of ways it can frustrate their plans.

Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Foreign policy decision-making involves not just anticipating and reacting to the actions of other actors on the world stage but also to their intentions. The problem, as Jervis amply documents, is that leaders often misperceive what others are doing. Knowing the ways events can be misperceived doesn’t guarantee better choices, but it can help a president ask the right questions.

Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Everyone uses historical analogies. They are powerful tools for defining problems, identifying solutions, and winning arguments. The problem is they are frequently misused and abused. Not every negotiation is Munich, and not every use of military force is Vietnam. Neustadt and May offer guidance on how to use history wisely.

So these are my five choices. What are yours?

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Steven

    Dr. Lindsay, you listed a really good book in this post, Thinking in Time. Im not a gambling man but I’m willing to bet a dollar that none of the 2016 candidates, Democrat nor Repubican, have ever read and have probably never even heard of Thinking in Time, which proves part of the book’s premise. There is a really good quote that the candidates should at least read because they probably won’t be reading this book anytime soon and if they don’t get on the ticket, they most likely never will. The quote? Winston Churchill’s “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

  • Posted by David B

    Waltz: Man State and War
    Allison: Essence of Decision
    Scheuer (yes, I know…) Through Our Enemies’ Eyes
    Krasner: Defending the National Interest
    Kahn: Thinking the Unthinkable

  • Posted by Dave C.

    Jervis’s book title should read “Perception and Misperception in International Politics.”

  • Posted by Garry

    Two older books that have timeless lessons that can be applied today as well.
    George F. Kennan – American Diplomacy
    Henry A. Kissinger – American Foreign Policy Three Essays

  • Posted by Matthew Murray

    James: Your list is great. I would add Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy by Les Gelb. This book is written for a presidential audience, counters the “America in decline” argument very effectively, and provides a seasoned set of principles for understanding and applying U.S. power. It imparts consistent guidelines for making foreign policy under contradictory domestic political pressures. Power Rules has become even more timely and relevant than when published in 2009. Matthew

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