The Best of Books 2020 – Foreign Affairs

The best books we reviewed this year, selected by Foreign Affairs editors and book reviewers.
by Thant Myint-U
In perhaps the definitive account of Myanmar’s halting transformation over the past decade, Thant Myint-U probes the ethnic and sectarian tensions and colonial legacies that have shaped the country’s modern politics.
by Binyamin Appelbaum
In this compelling and well-reported book, Appelbaum argues that economists’ countless interventions in U.S. public policy have amounted to no less than a “revolution”—well intentioned but with unanticipated consequences that have been far from benign.
by Martha S. Jones
Jones places Black women front, center, and in many instances ahead of white women in the fight for civil rights in the United States, making a vigorous case that Black women’s political activism has shaped events far more than most Americans realize.
by Adom Getachew
Getachew presents a sweeping account of the post-1945 decolonization movement, identifying in it not simply an embrace of Western norms of sovereignty and self-determination but a revolutionary project aimed at pushing the world in a more egalitarian and anti-imperial direction.
by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes
In this original and thought-provoking study, Krastev and Holmes argue that the retreat from liberal democracy in eastern Europe and elsewhere is rooted in liberalism’s post-1989 global triumph, which cemented a singular model of modernity rather than making room for alternatives.
by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Only in rare circumstances have states managed to produce free societies, Acemoglu and Robinson argue. It was in medieval Europe that states began to find this balance, and since then history has reinforced the notion that liberty is deeply contingent and often ephemeral.
by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Banerjee and Duflo, 2019 winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics, cover a wide swath of structural and policy issues, consistently emphasizing the importance of dignity for people from all walks of life.
by Branko Milanovic
As a system for organizing economies and societies, capitalism has won and has no rival, Milanovic argues. The question now is what kind of capitalism will define the future.
by Rana Foroohar
Foroohar launches a trenchant critique of the world’s largest technology firms and suggests a variety of ways to rein in their most destructive behavior.
by Alexander Mikaberidze
In this extraordinary work of scholarship, Mikaberidze provides vital context and global perspective to the epic struggle between France and its European competitors until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
by Jason Lyall
Lyall uses fascinating case studies to show how armed forces whose composition reflects severe inequalities between ethnic groups will fare worse in battle than their more equal counterparts. The statistical analysis backing up his claim sets a standard that others will struggle to match.
by Christina Lamb
Rape is often not the collateral damage of war but one of its instruments. With extraordinary persistence, Lamb sought out contemporary victims and encouraged them to tell their stories about sexual slavery, routine abuse, trauma, and stigma.
by Jennifer M. Silva
Drawing upon interviews with white, Black, and Latino residents of a declining coal town in Pennsylvania, Silva depicts a landscape of despair in which the social institutions that connect individuals to the community around them have largely disappeared.
by Stuart Stevens
Stevens, a former political consultant, places racism at the center of the Republican Party’s transformation, connecting Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to Reagan’s “more genteel prejudice” and Trump’s “white nationalism” in this scathing account.
by Charles A. Kupchan
The United States’ association with isolationism stretches from its founding to recent years, Kupchan argues. In this valuable volume, he examines the full sweep of U.S. history in a bid to recast this oft-maligned foreign policy tendency.
by Anu Bradford
Bradford demolishes myths about Europe’s declining international standing by showing how the European Union’s stringent regulations raise the standards of producers across the globe. This may well be the single most important book on Europe’s influence to appear in a decade.
by Anthony Luzzatto Gardner
This compelling memoir relates the impressions of the Obama administration’s final U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who makes a strong case for the EU as a preferred U.S. partner.
by Wolfgang Ischinger
Germany is the only major country that consistently articulates and often acts on a genuinely progressive vision of the global multilateral order. No clearer statement of this pragmatically optimistic outlook can be found than the one elaborated in this important book.
by Arturo Santa-Cruz
In this landmark contribution to the study of inter-American relations, Santa-Cruz argues that since the 1970s, the United States had preserved its core interests in Latin America by largely eschewing heavy-handed unilateralism—until the arrival of Donald Trump.
by Sebastián Hurtado-Torres
Drawing on newly released diplomatic correspondence between the U.S. embassy in Santiago, the U.S. State Department, and the White House, the Chilean historian Hurtado-Torres offers a sophisticated reinterpretation of U.S.-Chilean relations prior to the 1970 election of the leftist Salvador Allende.
by Barbara Stallings
Stallings’s little gem of a monograph describes a relationship of growing but not necessarily malign dependency in the burgeoning ties between Latin America and China.
by Eleonory Gilburd
Gilburd provides a rich history of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s cultural opening to the West as French pop music, Italian films, and translations of Western novels became part of Soviet life.
by Larry Wolff
In this enthralling account, Wolff traces the way U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s quest to bring national self-determination to eastern Europe clashed with the messy reality of historical frontiers and political rivalries in the region.
by Ben Macintyre
Macintyre’s new page-turner is the true story of Ursula Kuczynski, a German Jew, a passionate Communist, and an amazingly efficient Soviet spy code-named “Sonya.”
by Rashid Khalidi
Khalidi constructs a powerful argument about the Zionist claim to Palestine, framing it as comparable to the settler colonialism that characterized much of British and American imperialism. This book presents the most cogent and compelling account yet of this conflict from the Palestinian vantage point.
by Ben Hubbard
Hubbard provides a fascinating, well-reported, and compellingly recounted story of the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s impatient young crown prince, and his increasingly brazen concentration of power.
by Thanassis Cambanis, Dina Esfandiary, Sima Ghaddar, Michael Wahid Hanna, Aron Lund, and Renad Mansour
Cambanis and his colleagues have produced a provocative discussion about a particularly challenging kind of armed nonstate actor in the Middle East: the “hybrid actor” who can operate in concert with the state or in competition with it.
by Taomo Zhou
This impressively researched study of Sino-Indonesian relations from 1945 to 1967 links state-to-state diplomacy, party-to-party ties, and the Beijing-Taipei contest for influence, which shaped perceptions of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community that persist to this day.
by Daniel C. Mattingly
Looking at the Chinese state’s relationship with rural society, Mattingly describes a dynamic yet delicately balanced system in which the state recruits low-level officials from within local kinship and religious networks.
by Owen Bennett-Jones
In this intimate portrait of both the Bhutto family and Pakistani politics, Bennett-Jones delivers a complex Shakespearean tale of loyalty and feuding, insecurity and arrogance, and jealousy and solidarity spanning three generations.
by Mai Hassan
This remarkable study of the bureaucracy in Kenya since its independence is all the more impressive because it is one of very few recent academic studies of the internal dynamics of an authoritarian state.
by Max Siollun
Siollun is the premier expert on the role of the military in Nigeria. This sharply written and well-informed book focuses on the period between 1993 and 1999 that saw the rise of a particularly toxic politics in which senior military officers constantly maneuvered to maintain their power.
by Sarah G. Phillips
Phillips’s nuanced and provocative study is the most compelling account yet of the recent history of Somaliland, the territory that unilaterally broke away from Somalia in 1991. Her explanation of the country’s success weaves together domestic and international dynamics.
How Self-Dealing Elites Failed in Both Countries
Are Civil-Military Relations in Crisis?
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Merkel Model and Its Limits

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