As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year.
Is the American Century Over?, by Joseph Nye. Selected by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.
I read a lot of books in 2015, because I had to do a lot of writing.
Joseph Nye's new book has many merits: it is intelligent, useful and short. There is a lot of lazy thinking around about the US role in the world. Nye brings some rigour and clarity to the subject. He does not carry a brief for the US but he points to some of America's enduring strengths, including history, geography and demography. He points out that wealth is only one element of power and asks us to consider the power conversion capability of the US and its challengers. Nye believes China is the only challenger with a chance, but he reminds us that in any equation the denominator matters as well as the numerator. Even when China passes the US in the size of its GDP, its wealth per capita will remain a fraction of America's.
Nye's conclusion: the American Century is not over, but it's changing. If the US is to continue to lead, it must make smart strategic choices. Are you listening, Donald Trump?
Let me add two new books I read for enjoyment: Jason Matthews' new thriller Palace of Treason, which is outlandish and fun (but unlikely to be stocked in the Kremlin library); and Robert Harris's Dictator, the final book in his Cicero trilogy and a worthy monument to one of the greats.
Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven. Selected by Interpreter contributor Matthew Dal Santo.
This book highlights the way Russia's experiment with constitutional reform between 1905 and 1914 – especially the winding back of censorship and the subsequent explosion of the press – actually made war more likely rather than less. Without the need to satisfy 'public opinion', the aristocrats that governed Russia might well have been able to avoid a war many entered with deep foreboding.
Interesting too from the perspective of Russia's geopolitical orientation today is the lively debate Lieven illuminates between those who in 1914 saw Russia's future as lying in Asia and, therefore, looked on the competition with Germany and Austria in the Balkans as a sideshow, and those who considered that Russia's claim to great power status rested on preserving its preponderant position in Eastern Europe at all costs.
The Martian, by Andy Weir. Selected by Lowy Institute Director of Digital Sam Roggeveen.
I don't think The Martian is really the best book I read this year, but I wanted to recommend something for Interpreter readers to enjoy over the Christmas break. For science and space nerds (I'm the latter, not the former), this novel about an astronaut who finds himself marooned on the Red Planet after losing touch with crew mates who evacuate during a dust storm is catnip. But the book found a wide audience (and a Hollywood movie deal) because it had wider appeal: it is a gripping survival story anchored by a charmingly flawed lead character.
The story behind the book is also uplifting, in that it says something wonderful about the power of the internet to bring ideas and people together.