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As India’s role on the world stage increases, Delhi will become more and more entangled in questions it has not faced before. While one hopes that South Block is ready for the challenge, a democracy’s last line of defence is the questions its people put to the government.

How does one think about international relations? Does might make right, or is there a moral case to be made too? How much should economics shape India’s human rights commitment? Should Delhi treat dictatorships and democracies alike, or should it follow in the footsteps of many other world powers and try and impose its will upon weaker states?

It is not easy for the common (wo)man to become an expert on international relations in addition to earning her/his daily bread and giving family its due. If you truly want to understand the many strands of international relations, from security, economics, the nation-state, theories of government, bureaucracy, and history, one option is to go through, conservatively speaking, about 500 books at the graduate level. But expertise should not be the entry fare to ask intelligent questions; nor is it required to understand if the answer is forthright. So here is an attempt to pick just five books everyone aspiring proto-wonk(ette) must read…and keep asking good questions!

1. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, Kenneth Waltz

In one of his most well-known books, the doyen of structural realism lays out three levels of analysis to any problem in international relations, human nature, the structure of states, and the international system. Waltz is not so simplistic as to espouse a monocausal theory on the causation of war and he stresses on the inseparability of these three spheres, but he leans towards the anarchic international system wherein power is the only currency of the realm. In critique, some scholars have pointed out that Waltz does not give enough weight to international norms that temper the anarchy of the world system.

2. Economic Statecraft, David Allen Baldwin

In the era of sanctions, free trade agreements, and preferential trading blocs, economics has become an essential part of the international system. Economic Statecraft is one of the most thorough analyses of the various uses of economic policy in the pursuit of national goals. Baldwin argues that short of military force, the record on economics – sanctions, aid, etc – as a means of coercive diplomacy is no worse than any other option a state might attempt. Success of policy can be measured via effectiveness and efficiency; economic persuasion is difficult to measure with this yardstick as secondary and unstated goals are not factored in. In addition, the slow pace of such initiatives and the extraordinary difficulty of goals such as fostering democracy or creating free markets makes economic statecraft look impotent in comparison to the more virile options of war and diplomacy.

3. Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Robert Jervis

In a spectacular application of cognitive psychology to international politics, Jervis exposes fundamental difficulties all analysts work with in understanding the international system – incomplete data, ambivalent causation, and authorial bias. This work shows how psychology affects decision-making through historical understanding and media image, often to the detriment of good policy. We need not understand these as damning critiques but merely keep them in mind; after all, there is a price to pay for more information, and it is clear only post facto how much information was enough. Similarly, (mis)perception hardly has any objective standard, and it is not always clear which constituency a politician is addressing when setting the tone of a public speech. Considering the human element, if you will, might add sufficient caution to our instantaneous reactions.

4. Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy, Morton Halperin

Very similar to another stellar work, Congress and the Cold War, by Robert Johnson, Halperin disabuses the reader of the notion that foreign policy is formed with expertise and deliberation. Though Halperin chooses the United States as his case study, the mechanisms of government and the dynamics between various actors would make his work relevant to most democracies. The weakness of foreign policy interest groups – smaller, less wealthy, and usually less organised – makes them less influential in government and therefore susceptible to bureaucratic politics. Similarly, MPs realise that foreign policy is rarely an election topic and they can secure their constituencies better with a tangible domestic agenda. Foreign policy is the product of manic bartering between ideas and influence, and this book etches forever in your mind Otto von Bismarck’s comment about the making of laws.

5. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, Barrington Moore

A seminal work on the making of the modern world, Moore looks at the social, economic, and institutional bases upon which a society may turn fascist, democratic, or communist. He argues that modernity was shaped through one of three kinds of revolution – bourgeois (Britain, France, United States), “revolution from above” (Germany, Japan), or peasant (China, Russia). History is an important method in Moore’s work for it explains the structure and dynamic of the social classes that are the levers of his theory. Thus, Moore’s social class is not merely economic as Marxist theory postulates but also producer and consumer of political, ideological, and cultural norms. An addition to this fairly comprehensive tome is offered by Theda Skocpol in Politics and Society, where she adds international forces as a variable that may prevent or spur indigenous modernity.

There really ought to be no need to mention how much more nuance there is to any of these topics. It should also be evident that there are a few burning themes such as religion, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and ethnic conflict that have been left out. The reason for this, other than the severe curtailing of recommendations, is that the purpose of this particular list was to offer a broad and theoretical basis that may be universally applied – modern issues like nuclear proliferation and ethnic conflict do not, thankfully, apply to the entire international system.

If you are interested in the other 495 books on this, look me up!


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on August 16, 2013.

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