As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year. Part 1, 2 and 3.

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914, by Thomas Otte. Selected by Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at Australian National University and regular Interpreter contributor.

2014 seemed a good year to read a bit more about 1914, and there were a lot of new books to choose from. There does not seem much fresh to be said about the wider causes of war a century ago, but there remains a lot to learn about how things went from the assassination on 28 June to the outbreak of war five weeks later.

Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is especially good on the Balkan aspects of the July Crisis, and Sean McMeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War is great especially on the roles of France and Russia. But the best account is TG Otte's July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914, which unpacks the motives and muddles of the leaders of Europe with unmatched clarity. Read it slowly.

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton. Selected by Stephen Grenville, Nonresident Fellow in the International Economy Program at the Lowy Institute

Thomas Piketty stole all the limelight on the income-equality debate, but Angus Deaton did a better job. He covered the Piketty territory: 'We have recreated...Downton Abbey in the Hamptons.'

Having said this, Deaton goes on to chart progress in ways that go beyond simple measures of income and wealth. First, there is health. 'The world is a healthier place now than at almost any time in the past.' Then there is education – handed out very unequally even a century ago. As well, there is the miracle of economic convergence – the rapid growth of some emerging economies. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have caught up with our living standards in a single generation. China and India have taken a billion people out of abject poverty. The storyline is in the opening sentence: 'Life is better now than at almost any time in history.'

Restraint: A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy, by Barry Posen. Selected by Robert E Kelly, Associate Professor of International Relations at Pusan National University and a regular Interpreter contributor.

This is an important contribution in terms of finally giving a clear alternative to the American interventionist habit.

In the decades since 1989, the US has engaged in regular, sustained military interventions around the planet, accelerating since 9/11. This militarisation of US foreign policy has had enormous negative consequences widely ignored in the reigning liberal internationalist-neoconservative consensus: Iraq was a catastrophe; the financial costs of perpetual war are enormous; a gargantuan, poorly overseen surveillance apparatus has dramatically reduced personal freedoms; large numbers of foreigners, often Muslim or brown-skinned, have been killed with little concern shown by the American public.

Posen would reverse this domestic coarsening and overseas overextension by 'restraining' the use of American force toward clearer national interest, particularly control of the commons (oceans, skies, space), and demanding far more of free-riding allies such as most of NATO and Japan. American democracy is eroding under empire, and Posen shows an exit.