Strategic Outpost’s Second Annual Summer Vacation Reading List


Last summer, we decided that our last “Strategic Outpost” column before our August break should provide you, our faithful readers, an eclectic list of our annual best reads (and views and listens) for your summer vacations. If you are anything like us, vacation provides a chance to catch up on those nerdy topics you couldn’t quite get to during the rest of the year — all while hiding behind oversize shades and pretending to your friends and family that you’re completely unplugging. (Of course, we would never do something like that on our vacations!)

So here are our top choices for the summer 2017 beach season, lined up by big topics. We hope you find at least a couple that will challenge you, surprise you, inform you, and make you think — and one just to make you smile!

Global and Regional Threats

Destined for War, by Graham Allison. While the title suggests an inevitable cataclysmic conflict between the United States and China, the actual argument is more nuanced. Allison examines the “Thucydides trap” — the idea that a rising power displacing a status quo ruling power usually results in war. Of the 16 times this has happened in the last 500 years, the author argues, 12 ended in war. Allison taps the lessons from these centuries of fraught history to identify what he calls “twelve clues for peace.” This book is an essential primer devoted to better understanding and ultimately reshaping the critical relationship between the United States and China. Without finding ways to avoid miscalculation, mishap, and misunderstanding between these two nuclear-armed states, today’s growing frictions could all too readily become the most deadly and disastrous Thucydides trap ever.

How to Deal with North Korea,” by Mark Bowden in The Atlantic. The author of Black Hawk Down and Hue 1968 provides an excellent, dispassionate analysis of the four main strategic options for dealing with North Korea: prevention, turning the screws, decapitation, and acceptance. After assessing the military and political costs and benefits of each one, he argues the least bad of these four terrible options may involve doing nothing at all.

Occupied, streaming on Netflix. The premise: Russia invades and occupies Norway to restart the oil and gas production that the previous Norwegian government had ended because of climate change. The geopolitics may not seem plausible today — the European Union tacitly supports the occupation, while the United States remains on the sidelines — but it certainly resonates in a time of increased Russian aggression and decreased American global leadership. And with a storyline by best-selling thriller writer Jo Nesbø, we can’t wait to see how this story unfolds.

Politics and Power

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, by Rosa Brooks. With witty and engaging anecdotes, Brooks shines a bright light on the impacts of the growing militarization of U.S. foreign policy in an age of perpetual war. She explains how the U.S. military has drifted into becoming the one-stop shop for all overseas ventures, from managing Ebola clinics in Africa to aid and reconstruction teams in Afghanistan to waging shadowy counter-terrorist fights everywhere. With the Pentagon as the largest (and arguably best-funded) institution in the world, it is small wonder the “can-do” U.S. military gets tasked with missions that were once the purview of other, far less well-resourced government agencies. The effects, she argues, are pernicious: the blurring of long-established lines demarcating the U.S. government’s various roles and responsibilities, ultimately eroding the rule of law. In an administration that seeks to grow the defense budget while slashing the budgets of State, USAID, and many other U.S. civilian agencies, her message is now more important than ever.

The Jacksonian Revolt,” by Walter Russell Mead. In this insightful article for Foreign Policy, Mead describes the changing domestic political currents that brought Donald Trump to the White House as “Jacksonian populist nationalism.” In this formulation, the overarching purpose of the United States is advancing the interests of an American people whose primary concerns lie at home, not abroad. Mead’s perspectives explain how and why this view burst onto the national scene in the last election, and how it is reshaping both foreign and domestic policies in ways not seen since before World War II. His cogent article makes clear why the bipartisan post-war consensus on the U.S. role in promoting global engagement and the building of a liberal international order is now in tatters. A must-read for national security types in order to better understand the surging wave of tribal American populism.

All Measures Short of War, by Thomas J. Wright. Wright offers a passionate defense of the global engagement strategy Trump rejects. In this concise and compelling new book, Wright argues that active U.S. leadership to maintain the liberal international order remains the best way to address the strategic challenges of our times. He contends that the United States is actively competing with Russia and China for the future of the global order, and competing with multiple actors across the Middle East for regional power. Though these countries want to avoid war, they will nevertheless “compete fiercely to gain an upper hand” in every other way possible. He acknowledges his proposed strategy (called responsible competition) will not be adopted by the Trump administration, but nevertheless argues that it will become an even more important strategy for Trump’s ultimate successor.

On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder. This tiny book draws on the lessons of history to argue that the American path of democracy and freedom is neither inevitable nor necessarily enduring. Snyder, a noted scholar of eastern European history, outlines 20 lessons from the 20th century, casting them as a contemporary call for individual action. Number eight, for example, is “Believe in Truth,” since “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” Number 10, called “Stand Out,” reminds us to “[r]emember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.” This book is more than just a direct attack on the president’s rhetoric and his administration’s policies. It is also a powerful reminder that an informed and active citizenry is an essential bulwark against the erosion of democracy and freedom — a risk in the United States and all around the world.

Understanding Our World

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, by Klaus Schwab. This sobering read spells out in sometimes frightening detail the life-altering shifts happening at an exponential rate all around us. Schwab is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, and his work (with concentrated wisdom in the first chapter and the appendices) reminds us that today’s trends are rapidly blasting us into entirely uncharted human territory. The convergence of accelerating global trends — from synthetic biology, big data, and social networking to autonomous vehicles, robotics, and artificial intelligence — is remaking the world we know. He argues that we all must work collaboratively across countries, sectors, and other traditional boundaries to ensure this new revolution is “empowering and human-centered, rather than divisive and dehumanizing.”

Thank You for Being Late, by Thomas Friedman, and Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. These two books complement each other beautifully. Love him or hate him, Friedman does here what he does best: He describes some big trends that are shaping our world today in a simple (though sometimes simplistic) way. He argues that we are living in an “age of accelerations,” where technology, globalization, and climate change are all speeding up simultaneously — and which will require us to reinvent many aspects of our societies, workplaces, and geopolitics. Friedman describes himself as an optimist in the book’s subtitle, and it shows. He does describe some of the challenges faced by people who will not or cannot adapt, but Vance does that better than any writer in recent memory. Vance complements Friedman’s focus on macro trends by delving deeply into his own family’s history to paint a nuanced and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of those who are left behind, who see no opportunities for themselves, and who have given up on the American dream. A painful and illuminating landscape that encompasses far too many of our fellow citizens.

Life Wisdom

Chief Justice John Roberts’ commencement speech to the Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire, June 3, 2017. Do you remember who gave your middle school commencement speech? Neither do we. But you can be sure that the 9th grade boys at the Cardigan Mountain School won’t forget the speech given by the father of one of their classmates, who just so happens to be the 17th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — and his words of wisdom apply just as much to those of us whose school days are long past. Instead of wishing them good luck, as most commencement speakers do, Roberts hoped they would be treated unfairly (to learn the value of justice); suffer betrayal (to learn the value of loyalty); to have bad luck (to understand the role of chance in life); and to have “just enough pain to learn compassion.” He warned these privileged youngsters not to act privileged: “when you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow, or emptying the trash. Learn their name, and call them by their name.” He closed his speech by quoting the lyrics of America’s most recent Nobel laureate, the great Bob Dylan. The line that drew the greatest applause? After noting that most of the (all-male) graduates would soon be attending schools with girls for the first time, he deadpanned, “I have no advice for you.”

The Art of Living, by Epictetus. This interpretation of the great Stoic philosopher by Sharon Lebell is a terrific concise primer in living modestly and well — and one of us has given it as a gift to each of his children to help guide them through the sometimes brutal battles life throws your way. Born a slave in 55 A.D., Epictetus founded a school of philosophy rooted in the principle that people cannot control what happens to them, only their own reactions. This book provides 93 pithy instructions about how to meet life’s unending challenges with equanimity and grace. Notes such as “Act well the part that is given to you” and “Your will is always within your power” make clear that we ultimately control our responses to life’s events, whatever they may be. Retired Vice Adm. James Stockdale identified Epictetus as his principal source of strength during his seven and a half years as the senior U.S. Navy prisoner of war in North Vietnam’s brutal prison camps. (While you’re at it, read Stockdale’s marvelous reflections and speeches compiled in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot — a deeply personal take on Epictetus applied to the world of a military officer at war.)

Just for Fun

If you work in this field, there’s never enough to laugh about. (See: just about everything above.) So here is an irreverent and zippy homemade video brought to you by some of the great women sailors at sea a few years back aboard a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan. Here’s their carrier-based version of Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” We dare you not to crack a smile, even if you are a crusty admiral!

With that, “Strategic Outpost” is putting out its “on vacation” shingle for the rest of the summer. We look forward to returning after Labor Day rested and recharged, and ready to continue writing about the pressing national security issues of our times. Have a great rest of your summer!


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Robert B. Brown Jr.