.
W

hat makes a book a “best of the year?” Is it sales figures or the ranking on Amazon’s bestseller list? Is it the way that it captures the zeitgeist of the moment? Is it challenging, racy, or controversial? Or is it something else entirely? For me, when I think of a best book, it’s a book that springs to mind as if it is on the tip of my tongue. When someone asks “what’s the best book you’ve read lately”, it’s the one (or half-dozen) that come immediately out—often before the questioner has the chance to regret their query. A best book is one that challenges preconceived notions, maybe exploring an already well-explored topic, but through a new lens. It’s a book that makes the reader look at the world from a different perspective. 

I’m delighted to say that curating this list of the best books of 2021 was not an easy process, nor was down-selecting it to the ten included here. After reviewing nearly 45 books alone for Diplomatic Courier, I found it difficult to select the best ones this year. Each was a standout in its own right, ticking the boxes of offering enlightening perspectives, insightful commentary, and genuinely making me reflect on what I knew or thought I knew when it came to the subjects discussed. I always take away something from everything I read, but this year was particularly instructive, and to all the authors whose books I’ve read and reviewed—thank you. 

This is How They Tell Me the World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth immediately stood out for me when I first read it at the beginning of 2021. I wrote, then, that this book was easily a contender for best book of the year, and it’s nice to see my sentiment validated—it was recently awarded the Best Business Book of the Year by the FT and McKinsey. Nicole Perlroth’s book is a thrilling and alarming look at the zero-day exploit (cyber vulnerabilities for which there are no patches) market and arms race. She seamlessly blends deep research, exceptional journalism, and a flair for writing into a book that is a must read. By focusing on the people and not the technology, Perlroth brings to life just how vulnerable our digital lives are to disruption, particularly by a world that few would ever know existed. In so doing, she also manages to highlight the key challenges of the digital age: privacy and security, offense and defense, and peace and war. 

Elbridge Colby’s “The Strategy of Denial” is a smart, serious, well-argued, and thorough look at a strategy for staunching China’s hegemonic ambitions. It has received some unfortunate and (to my mind) misinformed pushback from those who think Colby is advocating for war. This is far from the case. What Colby presents is an intellectual framework for thinking about what is inherently unthinkable. This is a book that presents a strategy for denying Beijing the freedom of hegemonic movement and for halting its potential predation on Taiwan. In this “The Strategy of Denial” is exceptionally successful. Colby does outline what a limited war with China would look like and how the anti-hegemonic coalition might fight such a conflict, but this is eminently sensible—there is a five-sided building along the Potomac filled with people whose job it is to plan for the worst-case scenario. Colby’s greatest contribution is that he raises the type of questions Washington should be asking, and which should serve as the starting point for a critical national debate.      

While much has been said about China’s strategy to undermine the liberal international order, most of the commentary has focused on secondary sources, and very rarely what China is actually saying or doing. Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” is a brilliant corrective to this shortcoming. It is likely the finest book on not just Beijing’s strategy, but also its political, economic, and military implementation of that strategy over the last several decades. Using incredible primary source documents, Doshi masterfully lays out what the Chinese Communist Party says it is going to do, but also demonstrates what it is doing to fulfill those objectives. It is a fascinating companion book when read alongside Colby’s “The Strategy of Denial”. Doshi vividly illustrates the perils of strategic competition, something which Washington is slowly dawning to and in which it is beginning to engage. 

August of this 2021 saw America’s overt presence in Afghanistan end. The precipitous and disastrous withdrawal exposed Washington’s strategic failure in that country, serving as a painful and indeed tragic closing chapter to the 20 year-long war. The war itself will undoubtedly be endlessly dissected, but perhaps one of the best contemporary books on Afghanistan is Wes Morgan’s “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley”. Morgan focuses exclusively on the Pech Valley, home to some of the most violent and intense combat of the war from the opening salvo of the conflict through to America’s drawdown and shift to a predominantly special operations presence. Morgan’s micro-focus on that one valley exposes the innumerable macro-level challenges and shortcomings of the conflict from the absence of viable political ends, uncertainty over who the adversary was and is, and shows, tragically, how much was expended for so little gain. 

That “To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond” makes this list should be a surprise to no one. I absolutely loved this book. This is the type of book I would want for Christmas. Unwrapping it Christmas morning, curling up under a blanket with my dogs on the couch, and diving into its amazing essays on what science fiction can teach us about leadership, strategy, and security. Editors Steven Leonard and Jonathan Klug should be commended for pulling together such a rich and enjoyable anthology. This is one of the rare essay collections where there isn’t a single misstep. Every chapter left me saying to myself “huh, I hadn’t thought of that” or “I never looked at that, that way”, and that is such a delightful feeling given the breadth of the universes covered in “To Boldly Go”. From Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek, the Planet of the Apes to Expanse, there is very little ground left uncovered. This is really the ultimate Christmas gift for the science fiction nerd or policy wonk in your life.

Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac have carved out a niche that ticks all the literary boxes for my personal interest. Their previous book “The Black Door” was a fascinating look at the relationship between prime ministers and their intelligence services. It is a weighty tome, so much so I had to order the hardback after the paperback was gifted to me, but it is breezily written and exceptionally accessible. When I saw that the duo were publishing another book, “The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana”, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Of course, thanks to supply chain issues and Covid, I had to wait longer than I wanted—to say nothing of a mysterious “delivery delay”—but I received it nonetheless and have savored every page. A riveting exploration of the relationship between the royal family and intelligence since Queen Elizabeth I through to Elizabeth II, “The Secret Royals” is beyond fascinating and every page contains a riveting story or anecdote, offering insights into the Royal Family and the British intelligence services, themselves. 

For as much lexically changed in the shift from “great power competition” to “strategic competition”, much of the hyperbole and lazy analysis continued. Nowhere was this more evident than in the commentary on Russia, especially during the recent crisis surrounding Ukraine. Thankfully two books stood out as correctives to the prevailing story on Russia.

Dr. Kathryn Stoner’s “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order” from the outset challenges the wisdom that Russia is a declining power with few assets beyond nuclear weapons and energy resources. While most argue that Russia is simply playing a weak hand well, Dr. Stoner provides a convincing argument that Russia’s hand is not nearly as weak as it seems. Rather, Russia has managed to recover from its beleaguered post-Cold War position, develop a stronger hand than the West assumes, and more importantly, is increasingly willing to play that hand on the international stage. If we continue to assess Russia’s power through American frames of reference alone, Washington will continuously underestimate Moscow’s ability to act on the world stage. 

Washington also misunderstands Russia’s domestic politics. Here again it is less binary than most in the policymaking realm would prefer. Putin’s rule is vastly more complex and, while having authoritarian tendencies, he is not a dictator quashing all dissent. Authors Ben Noble, Jan Matti Dollbaum, and Morvan Lallouet brilliantly demonstrate just how rich, dynamic, and fascinating Russia’s internal politics are in their book “Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?” (a full review of which will be published, soon). The authors, using Alexei Navalny—the poisoned and now imprisoned opposition figure—as a hook, provide a far more complex and nuanced picture of Russia’s civil and political society. This is, absolutely, a biography of Navalny and the authors present a far more nuanced picture of the opposition figure than what is often presented in Western narratives. This is to be absolutely welcomed, but it is that deeply nuanced look at Russian politics that makes it so much more than just a biography. 

Not all of my reading this year was non-fiction. This year had two standout fiction books, one which focused on the conflicts of the past and one on the potential wars to come. “Damascus Station” by David McCloskey is one of the best entries in the modern spy genre, blending an incredible attention to tradecraft detail with a riveting story set amongst the Syrian Civil War. Spy thrillers are all about the characters, and McCloskey brings his to life in rich and vivid detail, while introducing the complexities of the civil war. While I am predisposed to leeriness when it comes to sequels—the market is filled with books that rush through the third act and set up an inevitable, if unnecessary sequel—I very much hope McCloskey continues the story arc. Perhaps he could take a leaf from David Ignatius’ playbook and have key characters appear in other storylines. Just a thought.  

2034: A Novel of the Next World War” by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis looks at a potential war of the future, one where the United States does not enjoy uncontested military dominance. The strength of “2034” is that it focuses on the human dynamics of conflict much more than other books in the genre. This is a critical omission from the field and a welcome addition by the authors. One may quibble with some of the escalation dynamics in the story, but that is precisely the point—we don’t know how our leaders would react in a crisis when national honor, interests, and lives are on the line. This era of strategic competition will neither be neat nor clean. It cannot be waged clinically and the interconnections of America and China, and the broader world, are infinitely complex. Ackerman and Stavridis provide insight into the military dimension of this, something on which we need to critically reflect going into 2022.  

In Memoriam 

Portrait of John le Carré. Photo by Anton Corbijn.

This year saw the publication of the last, at least so far, of John le Carré’s novels, “Silverview”. Picking up his final book was a bittersweet moment. I’ve always looked forward to his next novel and it was no different this time, except knowing that it would be the last time I was doing so. I am, to the surprise of no one, somewhat compelled to pick up various copies of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as I come across them—five or six by last count, all with different dust jackets or covers. I struggle and probably always will to convince myself to splurge and get that first edition hardcover that I’ve spied at one shop on a number of occasions. “Silverview” is classic le Carré. Its characters are complex without being caricatures, their motivations are unclear, its plot intricate, yet well told, and its setting second-to-none. I’m quite partial to the idea of a spy story taking place in the foreground of an independent bookstore, as Silverview’s story does. Le Carré’s books will always be literary comfort food for me, and he and his reflections on the world and espionage will be missed. 

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season. Here’s to a bright and better 2022! 

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, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. 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.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Diplomatic Courier’s Best Books of 2021

Photo by Hamza Nouasria via Unsplash.

December 12, 2021

A best book is one that challenges preconceived notions, exploring an already well-explored topic, but through a new lens. It’s a book that makes the reader look at the world from a different perspective. Joshua Huminski reviewed 45 books for Diplomatic Courier in 2021; these are his top 10.

W

hat makes a book a “best of the year?” Is it sales figures or the ranking on Amazon’s bestseller list? Is it the way that it captures the zeitgeist of the moment? Is it challenging, racy, or controversial? Or is it something else entirely? For me, when I think of a best book, it’s a book that springs to mind as if it is on the tip of my tongue. When someone asks “what’s the best book you’ve read lately”, it’s the one (or half-dozen) that come immediately out—often before the questioner has the chance to regret their query. A best book is one that challenges preconceived notions, maybe exploring an already well-explored topic, but through a new lens. It’s a book that makes the reader look at the world from a different perspective. 

I’m delighted to say that curating this list of the best books of 2021 was not an easy process, nor was down-selecting it to the ten included here. After reviewing nearly 45 books alone for Diplomatic Courier, I found it difficult to select the best ones this year. Each was a standout in its own right, ticking the boxes of offering enlightening perspectives, insightful commentary, and genuinely making me reflect on what I knew or thought I knew when it came to the subjects discussed. I always take away something from everything I read, but this year was particularly instructive, and to all the authors whose books I’ve read and reviewed—thank you. 

This is How They Tell Me the World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth immediately stood out for me when I first read it at the beginning of 2021. I wrote, then, that this book was easily a contender for best book of the year, and it’s nice to see my sentiment validated—it was recently awarded the Best Business Book of the Year by the FT and McKinsey. Nicole Perlroth’s book is a thrilling and alarming look at the zero-day exploit (cyber vulnerabilities for which there are no patches) market and arms race. She seamlessly blends deep research, exceptional journalism, and a flair for writing into a book that is a must read. By focusing on the people and not the technology, Perlroth brings to life just how vulnerable our digital lives are to disruption, particularly by a world that few would ever know existed. In so doing, she also manages to highlight the key challenges of the digital age: privacy and security, offense and defense, and peace and war. 

Elbridge Colby’s “The Strategy of Denial” is a smart, serious, well-argued, and thorough look at a strategy for staunching China’s hegemonic ambitions. It has received some unfortunate and (to my mind) misinformed pushback from those who think Colby is advocating for war. This is far from the case. What Colby presents is an intellectual framework for thinking about what is inherently unthinkable. This is a book that presents a strategy for denying Beijing the freedom of hegemonic movement and for halting its potential predation on Taiwan. In this “The Strategy of Denial” is exceptionally successful. Colby does outline what a limited war with China would look like and how the anti-hegemonic coalition might fight such a conflict, but this is eminently sensible—there is a five-sided building along the Potomac filled with people whose job it is to plan for the worst-case scenario. Colby’s greatest contribution is that he raises the type of questions Washington should be asking, and which should serve as the starting point for a critical national debate.      

While much has been said about China’s strategy to undermine the liberal international order, most of the commentary has focused on secondary sources, and very rarely what China is actually saying or doing. Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” is a brilliant corrective to this shortcoming. It is likely the finest book on not just Beijing’s strategy, but also its political, economic, and military implementation of that strategy over the last several decades. Using incredible primary source documents, Doshi masterfully lays out what the Chinese Communist Party says it is going to do, but also demonstrates what it is doing to fulfill those objectives. It is a fascinating companion book when read alongside Colby’s “The Strategy of Denial”. Doshi vividly illustrates the perils of strategic competition, something which Washington is slowly dawning to and in which it is beginning to engage. 

August of this 2021 saw America’s overt presence in Afghanistan end. The precipitous and disastrous withdrawal exposed Washington’s strategic failure in that country, serving as a painful and indeed tragic closing chapter to the 20 year-long war. The war itself will undoubtedly be endlessly dissected, but perhaps one of the best contemporary books on Afghanistan is Wes Morgan’s “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley”. Morgan focuses exclusively on the Pech Valley, home to some of the most violent and intense combat of the war from the opening salvo of the conflict through to America’s drawdown and shift to a predominantly special operations presence. Morgan’s micro-focus on that one valley exposes the innumerable macro-level challenges and shortcomings of the conflict from the absence of viable political ends, uncertainty over who the adversary was and is, and shows, tragically, how much was expended for so little gain. 

That “To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond” makes this list should be a surprise to no one. I absolutely loved this book. This is the type of book I would want for Christmas. Unwrapping it Christmas morning, curling up under a blanket with my dogs on the couch, and diving into its amazing essays on what science fiction can teach us about leadership, strategy, and security. Editors Steven Leonard and Jonathan Klug should be commended for pulling together such a rich and enjoyable anthology. This is one of the rare essay collections where there isn’t a single misstep. Every chapter left me saying to myself “huh, I hadn’t thought of that” or “I never looked at that, that way”, and that is such a delightful feeling given the breadth of the universes covered in “To Boldly Go”. From Battlestar Galactica to Star Trek, the Planet of the Apes to Expanse, there is very little ground left uncovered. This is really the ultimate Christmas gift for the science fiction nerd or policy wonk in your life.

Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac have carved out a niche that ticks all the literary boxes for my personal interest. Their previous book “The Black Door” was a fascinating look at the relationship between prime ministers and their intelligence services. It is a weighty tome, so much so I had to order the hardback after the paperback was gifted to me, but it is breezily written and exceptionally accessible. When I saw that the duo were publishing another book, “The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana”, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Of course, thanks to supply chain issues and Covid, I had to wait longer than I wanted—to say nothing of a mysterious “delivery delay”—but I received it nonetheless and have savored every page. A riveting exploration of the relationship between the royal family and intelligence since Queen Elizabeth I through to Elizabeth II, “The Secret Royals” is beyond fascinating and every page contains a riveting story or anecdote, offering insights into the Royal Family and the British intelligence services, themselves. 

For as much lexically changed in the shift from “great power competition” to “strategic competition”, much of the hyperbole and lazy analysis continued. Nowhere was this more evident than in the commentary on Russia, especially during the recent crisis surrounding Ukraine. Thankfully two books stood out as correctives to the prevailing story on Russia.

Dr. Kathryn Stoner’s “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order” from the outset challenges the wisdom that Russia is a declining power with few assets beyond nuclear weapons and energy resources. While most argue that Russia is simply playing a weak hand well, Dr. Stoner provides a convincing argument that Russia’s hand is not nearly as weak as it seems. Rather, Russia has managed to recover from its beleaguered post-Cold War position, develop a stronger hand than the West assumes, and more importantly, is increasingly willing to play that hand on the international stage. If we continue to assess Russia’s power through American frames of reference alone, Washington will continuously underestimate Moscow’s ability to act on the world stage. 

Washington also misunderstands Russia’s domestic politics. Here again it is less binary than most in the policymaking realm would prefer. Putin’s rule is vastly more complex and, while having authoritarian tendencies, he is not a dictator quashing all dissent. Authors Ben Noble, Jan Matti Dollbaum, and Morvan Lallouet brilliantly demonstrate just how rich, dynamic, and fascinating Russia’s internal politics are in their book “Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?” (a full review of which will be published, soon). The authors, using Alexei Navalny—the poisoned and now imprisoned opposition figure—as a hook, provide a far more complex and nuanced picture of Russia’s civil and political society. This is, absolutely, a biography of Navalny and the authors present a far more nuanced picture of the opposition figure than what is often presented in Western narratives. This is to be absolutely welcomed, but it is that deeply nuanced look at Russian politics that makes it so much more than just a biography. 

Not all of my reading this year was non-fiction. This year had two standout fiction books, one which focused on the conflicts of the past and one on the potential wars to come. “Damascus Station” by David McCloskey is one of the best entries in the modern spy genre, blending an incredible attention to tradecraft detail with a riveting story set amongst the Syrian Civil War. Spy thrillers are all about the characters, and McCloskey brings his to life in rich and vivid detail, while introducing the complexities of the civil war. While I am predisposed to leeriness when it comes to sequels—the market is filled with books that rush through the third act and set up an inevitable, if unnecessary sequel—I very much hope McCloskey continues the story arc. Perhaps he could take a leaf from David Ignatius’ playbook and have key characters appear in other storylines. Just a thought.  

2034: A Novel of the Next World War” by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis looks at a potential war of the future, one where the United States does not enjoy uncontested military dominance. The strength of “2034” is that it focuses on the human dynamics of conflict much more than other books in the genre. This is a critical omission from the field and a welcome addition by the authors. One may quibble with some of the escalation dynamics in the story, but that is precisely the point—we don’t know how our leaders would react in a crisis when national honor, interests, and lives are on the line. This era of strategic competition will neither be neat nor clean. It cannot be waged clinically and the interconnections of America and China, and the broader world, are infinitely complex. Ackerman and Stavridis provide insight into the military dimension of this, something on which we need to critically reflect going into 2022.  

In Memoriam 

Portrait of John le Carré. Photo by Anton Corbijn.

This year saw the publication of the last, at least so far, of John le Carré’s novels, “Silverview”. Picking up his final book was a bittersweet moment. I’ve always looked forward to his next novel and it was no different this time, except knowing that it would be the last time I was doing so. I am, to the surprise of no one, somewhat compelled to pick up various copies of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as I come across them—five or six by last count, all with different dust jackets or covers. I struggle and probably always will to convince myself to splurge and get that first edition hardcover that I’ve spied at one shop on a number of occasions. “Silverview” is classic le Carré. Its characters are complex without being caricatures, their motivations are unclear, its plot intricate, yet well told, and its setting second-to-none. I’m quite partial to the idea of a spy story taking place in the foreground of an independent bookstore, as Silverview’s story does. Le Carré’s books will always be literary comfort food for me, and he and his reflections on the world and espionage will be missed. 

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season. Here’s to a bright and better 2022! 

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, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. 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.