.
A

side from October and Halloween, my favorite time of the year is when the ‘best books of the year’ lists start to appear in the media. There is something thoroughly enjoyable about perusing the lists, seeing what made it and what did not, and whether or not the books I thought stood out, stood out in the minds of others. Of course, my reading habits trend slightly atypical. I’m not one for the major literary works of the day and I’m usually out of sync with the popular zeitgeist. Oprah’s and Reese’s book clubs, great though they are, are not really aimed at me.

As my family can attest, purchasing books for me is a nightmare, despite my asking for books (and coffee) every year—I’ve either read it, have an opinion on the author, or decided not to read it. If it is on national security, foreign policy, or intelligence, there is a good chance I’ve decided on it one way or the other. Yet, I can be, and do indeed enjoy being, surprised. One standout Secret Santa gift was from a previous boss who—on the recommendation of Sir Nicholas Soames, no less—gave me Soldier Sahibs by Charles Allen. It was a thoroughly unexpected book about the “Great Game” and an absolute delight to read. Another friend found a delightful global history of coffee. One of my favorite holiday memories was at my family home reading What If?—a collection of counterfactual history essays—curled up below blankets by candlelight as a snowstorm knocked out our power.

That being said, it is with great excitement—perhaps one of the few excitements for me this year—that I can curate my own “best books” list for the Diplomatic Courier. Before the year is over I will have written nearly 40 book reviews for the Diplomatic Courier, running the gamut from Russia, China, and North Korea, to deep fakes, spy fiction, and the future of warfare. This is to say nothing of the litany of books that slowly made their way from my groaning “to be read” pile to one of the many piles of completed books scattered across my apartment.

What makes a book stand out for me is not its popularity or how it captures the mood of the day. There seems to be no shortage of virtue signaling in what books are “popular” and read most frequently (especially this year) or appear in one’s Zoom background. Rather, the books that are the best to me are the ones that offer nuanced insights into exceptionally complicated subjects. I love complexity, depth, and elucidation where others prefer simplistic and easy answers. I relish the books that shine a light on the nuance of a subject, not merely the superficial clichés or popular narratives.

With all the attention on Russia and its involvement in the 2016 and 2020 elections and America’s often confused and certainly tortured policy towards Moscow, there was no shortage of books about Moscow and the Russian president. Naturally, most looked at the relationship with the Kremlin through the lens of Donald Trump and Washington’s relations with the former Soviet Union. The tired tropes and clichés of Moscow’s supposed “playbook” or “grand strategy” or Putin’s judo throws of the Washington establishment were in abundance, but thankfully, three books rose to the top of the pile and are some of the best books of 2020.

Perhaps the standout book of 2020 for me was Putin’s People by Catherine Belton. The former FT reporter’s incredibly well-written and deeply-reported book offered unparalleled insights into how Vladimir Putin rose to power, how his inner circle works, and critically, how Moscow finances its foreign policy and security efforts through unconventional and opaque means. Ms. Belton goes beyond the façade and looks at Putin and his power structure from the inside out, revealing in fascinating detail the relationships, the networks, and the connections between and amongst the intelligence cadre (or siloviki) that gave rise to Putin. This is the very same cadre that now surrounds him, controlling most, if not all, of Russian state institutions. It is an absolutely riveting read and one that provides exceptional insight into how Putin operates and how Russia pursues its objectives.

Mark Galeotti, a noted Russia analyst and the host of the fantastic In Moscow’s Shadows podcast (and blog), provided a fascinating look into Russia’s history and how Putin and the Kremlin use, and misuse, that history to advance its own political ends. A Short History of Russia was a delightful read that made me want more in the best of ways and actually added to my “to be read” pile—he helpfully offers suggestions for additional readings at the end of each chapter. (Also, if you’re not listening to his podcast, you should.) As Galeotti describes the Russians, they are a “palimpsest people, citizens of a patchwork nation that more than most shows these external influences”. Whether it is the language they use, a mix of dialects and legacy words from invaders and those conquered, the religious hodgepodge that makes-up this massive country, or the constant struggle to define itself, Russia is vastly more complex and ultimately more fascinating than it is at face value—and it is already very interesting at that.

While we like to think that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election was unique, if we look at history, it was not. Rather, it was a continuation of Russian intelligence efforts, merely updated for the information era and social media. Here, Thomas Rid’s Active Measures provides exceptional insights into the activities of the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to manipulate the West and to advance its own interests. Rid examines active measures, their contexts, their aims, and impacts in incredible detail. Each chapter unveils a campaign cleverly crafted to exploit a target’s weakness, advance interest, and subvert the system to the attacker’s advantage. Were Active Measures a fictional work, it would have been one of the best espionage thrillers of the year. The fact that it is all true makes it that much more frightening.

At a macro-level, Battlegrounds by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is one of the most fascinating books of the year. McMaster’s book is a rare thing to come out of those departing the Trump administration—an analytical, critical, and cogent policy work. It is neither a political tell-all nor is it an insider score-settling. Yet, it’s also not a defense of the administration. The market is saturated with books like that, so much so it seems as though one leaves the White House with a book deal. In Battlegrounds, McMaster carefully reviews the major foreign policy and national security challenges he encountered while he was National Security Adviser, unpacks their history, and dissects the legion of failings. It is eminently accessible and coherently presented. Ironically, the reader sees what a Trump-administration foreign policy could have looked like had the administration operated more traditionally, and had there been a functioning National Security Council.

While McMaster examines the challenge of North Korea from a Washington perspective, Dr. Jung Pak, a former CIA officer and the Deputy National Intelligence Officer at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (and currently part of the Intelligence Community Review Team for the Biden-Harris Transition) offers one of the most fascinating looks at North Korea from the inside out in Becoming Kim Jong-Un. Despite all the hyperbolic rhetoric from the White House about a possible breakthrough with North Korea, the situation is very much the same as at the end of the Trump administration as at the beginning. Pyongyang still has nuclear weapons, is advancing its weapons programs—both conventional and unconventional—and the West still doesn’t fully understand Kim Jong-Un, the enigmatic millennial dear leader. Bringing her intelligence analysis rigor to the question of Kim Jong-Un’s behavior, Dr. Pak goes beyond the bombast and hyperbole to provide a much more nuanced and even more interesting picture.

This year had an odd parallelism with the assassination of Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of 2020 and the recent killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the driving force behind Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran is one of the thorniest foreign policy challenges facing the incoming administration, and with which nearly every previous administration all but failed to grapple. This is, first and foremost, due to failing to understand Tehran from Tehran’s point of view, its regional situation, and its goals—understanding is not acceptance, but it is a prerequisite for making smart policy. Here, The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions by Arash Azizi is well worth a read. It is ostensibly about Soleimani, but it is so much more than just a biography. Rather, it is a nuanced history of the formation of the Islamic Republic, the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the execution of Tehran’s foreign policy throughout the region. It is all the stronger for not having been written from an American viewpoint.

While 2020 certainly feels like it has lasted a decade or more, it is not over yet. Since March, the way we live, work, and interact has changed to such a degree, it bears scant resemblance to January or February. Time seemingly accelerated this year, even if most of us were variously locked down. Lionel Barber, the former editor of the FT, chronicles well over a decade in his The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times. It is more than just a collection of his thoughts from 2005 to 2015, and certainly more than just his encounters with the great and good (and the not-so-great and not-so-good). It charts the chaotic unfolding, the ultimate financial crisis of 2008, and its aftermath; the rise of nationalism and populism to the international stage; and the upending of the established liberal international and capitalist order that shaped the modern world. Readers should look at it as a whole, and not just its parts; they will be well-rewarded for looking beyond the façade of events and seeing what those events signified for modern history.

While it may seem that way, I did not just read non-fiction all year. I did try to escape from time to time. Fictional works are very hit or miss for me. I’m either fully and completely absorbed, or I check out and read the book just to finish. Burn-In by P.W. Singer and August Cole is firmly in the former category. A book set in the near future where AI, machine learning, robotics, and contemporary trends have fully taken shape, Burn-In is so much more than its police (well, FBI) procedural format. True, the pairing of the human FBI special agent with the robotic “TAMS” is used to explore some of the most complex questions of humanity—our relationship with machines, the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with artificial intelligence—but the story is so much more. The universe that both Mr. Singer and Mr. Cole create is fascinating and alarming in equal measures. Automation and AI are widespread, relegating even “white collar” jobs to history. Economic inequality accelerated to the extremes as the tech barons of today are the dominating figures of the future. Technology, ubiquitous today, is inescapable in the future. Burn-In is a thought-provoking and philosophical blockbuster; it is Michael Bay meets Stephen Hawking, and it is fantastic.

Looking forward to 2021, undoubtedly there will be an endless analysis of what happened during the Trump administration and what his legacy and impact will be both domestically and internationally. One hopes that there is a concomitant increase in forward-looking policy books, but also books that explore, as many of these did, the world from a perspective other than America’s alone.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season and, hopefully, a better and brighter New Year.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Diplomatic Courier’s Best Books of 2020

Photo by Laura Kapfer via Unsplash.

December 5, 2020

A

side from October and Halloween, my favorite time of the year is when the ‘best books of the year’ lists start to appear in the media. There is something thoroughly enjoyable about perusing the lists, seeing what made it and what did not, and whether or not the books I thought stood out, stood out in the minds of others. Of course, my reading habits trend slightly atypical. I’m not one for the major literary works of the day and I’m usually out of sync with the popular zeitgeist. Oprah’s and Reese’s book clubs, great though they are, are not really aimed at me.

As my family can attest, purchasing books for me is a nightmare, despite my asking for books (and coffee) every year—I’ve either read it, have an opinion on the author, or decided not to read it. If it is on national security, foreign policy, or intelligence, there is a good chance I’ve decided on it one way or the other. Yet, I can be, and do indeed enjoy being, surprised. One standout Secret Santa gift was from a previous boss who—on the recommendation of Sir Nicholas Soames, no less—gave me Soldier Sahibs by Charles Allen. It was a thoroughly unexpected book about the “Great Game” and an absolute delight to read. Another friend found a delightful global history of coffee. One of my favorite holiday memories was at my family home reading What If?—a collection of counterfactual history essays—curled up below blankets by candlelight as a snowstorm knocked out our power.

That being said, it is with great excitement—perhaps one of the few excitements for me this year—that I can curate my own “best books” list for the Diplomatic Courier. Before the year is over I will have written nearly 40 book reviews for the Diplomatic Courier, running the gamut from Russia, China, and North Korea, to deep fakes, spy fiction, and the future of warfare. This is to say nothing of the litany of books that slowly made their way from my groaning “to be read” pile to one of the many piles of completed books scattered across my apartment.

What makes a book stand out for me is not its popularity or how it captures the mood of the day. There seems to be no shortage of virtue signaling in what books are “popular” and read most frequently (especially this year) or appear in one’s Zoom background. Rather, the books that are the best to me are the ones that offer nuanced insights into exceptionally complicated subjects. I love complexity, depth, and elucidation where others prefer simplistic and easy answers. I relish the books that shine a light on the nuance of a subject, not merely the superficial clichés or popular narratives.

With all the attention on Russia and its involvement in the 2016 and 2020 elections and America’s often confused and certainly tortured policy towards Moscow, there was no shortage of books about Moscow and the Russian president. Naturally, most looked at the relationship with the Kremlin through the lens of Donald Trump and Washington’s relations with the former Soviet Union. The tired tropes and clichés of Moscow’s supposed “playbook” or “grand strategy” or Putin’s judo throws of the Washington establishment were in abundance, but thankfully, three books rose to the top of the pile and are some of the best books of 2020.

Perhaps the standout book of 2020 for me was Putin’s People by Catherine Belton. The former FT reporter’s incredibly well-written and deeply-reported book offered unparalleled insights into how Vladimir Putin rose to power, how his inner circle works, and critically, how Moscow finances its foreign policy and security efforts through unconventional and opaque means. Ms. Belton goes beyond the façade and looks at Putin and his power structure from the inside out, revealing in fascinating detail the relationships, the networks, and the connections between and amongst the intelligence cadre (or siloviki) that gave rise to Putin. This is the very same cadre that now surrounds him, controlling most, if not all, of Russian state institutions. It is an absolutely riveting read and one that provides exceptional insight into how Putin operates and how Russia pursues its objectives.

Mark Galeotti, a noted Russia analyst and the host of the fantastic In Moscow’s Shadows podcast (and blog), provided a fascinating look into Russia’s history and how Putin and the Kremlin use, and misuse, that history to advance its own political ends. A Short History of Russia was a delightful read that made me want more in the best of ways and actually added to my “to be read” pile—he helpfully offers suggestions for additional readings at the end of each chapter. (Also, if you’re not listening to his podcast, you should.) As Galeotti describes the Russians, they are a “palimpsest people, citizens of a patchwork nation that more than most shows these external influences”. Whether it is the language they use, a mix of dialects and legacy words from invaders and those conquered, the religious hodgepodge that makes-up this massive country, or the constant struggle to define itself, Russia is vastly more complex and ultimately more fascinating than it is at face value—and it is already very interesting at that.

While we like to think that Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election was unique, if we look at history, it was not. Rather, it was a continuation of Russian intelligence efforts, merely updated for the information era and social media. Here, Thomas Rid’s Active Measures provides exceptional insights into the activities of the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to manipulate the West and to advance its own interests. Rid examines active measures, their contexts, their aims, and impacts in incredible detail. Each chapter unveils a campaign cleverly crafted to exploit a target’s weakness, advance interest, and subvert the system to the attacker’s advantage. Were Active Measures a fictional work, it would have been one of the best espionage thrillers of the year. The fact that it is all true makes it that much more frightening.

At a macro-level, Battlegrounds by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is one of the most fascinating books of the year. McMaster’s book is a rare thing to come out of those departing the Trump administration—an analytical, critical, and cogent policy work. It is neither a political tell-all nor is it an insider score-settling. Yet, it’s also not a defense of the administration. The market is saturated with books like that, so much so it seems as though one leaves the White House with a book deal. In Battlegrounds, McMaster carefully reviews the major foreign policy and national security challenges he encountered while he was National Security Adviser, unpacks their history, and dissects the legion of failings. It is eminently accessible and coherently presented. Ironically, the reader sees what a Trump-administration foreign policy could have looked like had the administration operated more traditionally, and had there been a functioning National Security Council.

While McMaster examines the challenge of North Korea from a Washington perspective, Dr. Jung Pak, a former CIA officer and the Deputy National Intelligence Officer at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (and currently part of the Intelligence Community Review Team for the Biden-Harris Transition) offers one of the most fascinating looks at North Korea from the inside out in Becoming Kim Jong-Un. Despite all the hyperbolic rhetoric from the White House about a possible breakthrough with North Korea, the situation is very much the same as at the end of the Trump administration as at the beginning. Pyongyang still has nuclear weapons, is advancing its weapons programs—both conventional and unconventional—and the West still doesn’t fully understand Kim Jong-Un, the enigmatic millennial dear leader. Bringing her intelligence analysis rigor to the question of Kim Jong-Un’s behavior, Dr. Pak goes beyond the bombast and hyperbole to provide a much more nuanced and even more interesting picture.

This year had an odd parallelism with the assassination of Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of 2020 and the recent killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the driving force behind Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran is one of the thorniest foreign policy challenges facing the incoming administration, and with which nearly every previous administration all but failed to grapple. This is, first and foremost, due to failing to understand Tehran from Tehran’s point of view, its regional situation, and its goals—understanding is not acceptance, but it is a prerequisite for making smart policy. Here, The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions by Arash Azizi is well worth a read. It is ostensibly about Soleimani, but it is so much more than just a biography. Rather, it is a nuanced history of the formation of the Islamic Republic, the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the execution of Tehran’s foreign policy throughout the region. It is all the stronger for not having been written from an American viewpoint.

While 2020 certainly feels like it has lasted a decade or more, it is not over yet. Since March, the way we live, work, and interact has changed to such a degree, it bears scant resemblance to January or February. Time seemingly accelerated this year, even if most of us were variously locked down. Lionel Barber, the former editor of the FT, chronicles well over a decade in his The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times. It is more than just a collection of his thoughts from 2005 to 2015, and certainly more than just his encounters with the great and good (and the not-so-great and not-so-good). It charts the chaotic unfolding, the ultimate financial crisis of 2008, and its aftermath; the rise of nationalism and populism to the international stage; and the upending of the established liberal international and capitalist order that shaped the modern world. Readers should look at it as a whole, and not just its parts; they will be well-rewarded for looking beyond the façade of events and seeing what those events signified for modern history.

While it may seem that way, I did not just read non-fiction all year. I did try to escape from time to time. Fictional works are very hit or miss for me. I’m either fully and completely absorbed, or I check out and read the book just to finish. Burn-In by P.W. Singer and August Cole is firmly in the former category. A book set in the near future where AI, machine learning, robotics, and contemporary trends have fully taken shape, Burn-In is so much more than its police (well, FBI) procedural format. True, the pairing of the human FBI special agent with the robotic “TAMS” is used to explore some of the most complex questions of humanity—our relationship with machines, the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with artificial intelligence—but the story is so much more. The universe that both Mr. Singer and Mr. Cole create is fascinating and alarming in equal measures. Automation and AI are widespread, relegating even “white collar” jobs to history. Economic inequality accelerated to the extremes as the tech barons of today are the dominating figures of the future. Technology, ubiquitous today, is inescapable in the future. Burn-In is a thought-provoking and philosophical blockbuster; it is Michael Bay meets Stephen Hawking, and it is fantastic.

Looking forward to 2021, undoubtedly there will be an endless analysis of what happened during the Trump administration and what his legacy and impact will be both domestically and internationally. One hopes that there is a concomitant increase in forward-looking policy books, but also books that explore, as many of these did, the world from a perspective other than America’s alone.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season and, hopefully, a better and brighter New Year.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.