2018 Lionel Gelber Prize Shortlist: War, Asia And One Of History's Greatest Tragedies

Together, the five works reveal forces shaping the world that are more deeply rooted — and likely to be longer lasting — than tweets.

03/14/2018 10:23 EDT | Updated 03/14/2018 12:10 EDT

Each year, the five books shortlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize draw a map of some major themes driving global affairs. This year's map is encouraging for what it avoids: Trump.

Instead, our judges urge you to consider two books about the changing way that humans think about war, two that change the way you might think about Asia, and one epic account of the famine Stalin unleashed on Ukraine. Together, the five works reveal forces shaping the world that are more deeply rooted — and likely to be longer lasting — than tweets.

JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

The Lionel Gelber Prize for best book in International Affairs is designed for the long view. Named for Canada's top diplomat through the depths of the Cold War — Gelber's family funds the prize — it's the joint project of Foreign Policy Magazine and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The Munk School's founding director, Janice Stein, chaired a jury that also included Ramachandra Guha (Bengaluru, India), Desmond King (Oxford, England), David M. Malone (Tokyo, Japan), and Jeannette Money (California, USA).

War itself is a centrepiece of the 2018 shortlist.

The Internationalists:How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster), by Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, reveals the vast shadow of the 1928 Kellogg – Briand pact. The few specialists who think much about the treaty have long considered it a sick joke, because it outlawed war even as many of its 31 initial signatories were rumbling towards the Second World War. Hathaway and Shapiro had been skeptical, too — until the two Yale law scholars saw data they'd collected on war.

"This is not an 'everything is perfect story,'" Hathaway says in an episode of the 2018 Lionel Gelber podcast, sponsored by Focus Asset Management. But, she adds, "interstate wars between states have fallen significantly, due in significant part to the decision to outlaw war in 1928 and the consolidation of that promise in the UN charter in 1945." In The Internationalists, they tell the dramatic story of the pact itself, and of how it led directly to the scaffolding of treaties, international organizations and basic rules that now define the global system.

Link to podcast with Oona Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro

The Future of War:A History by Lawrence Freedman, (PublicAffairs/Hachette Book Group) builds on the point that we think about war differently today than we ever have. Freedman, emeritus professor of War Studies at King's College London, is one of Britain's leading security experts and won the 2009 Gelber Prize for A Choice Of Enemies, about America's role in the Middle East. Drawing as much on literature as he does on international relations theory, he shows that societies change the way they think of war more quickly than do war planners themselves, who are often caught "fighting the last war," as the saying goes. The gap can leave us stuck in endless stalemates. "The best predictor of a future war is a past war, and this is particularly true of civil war," Freedman explains in the Gelber podcast. "Even when the levels of violence seem to have subsided there is a sense that the 'conflict trap' will reassert itself."

Link to podcast with Lawrence Freedman

In Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Harvard professor Graham Allison urges Americans to understand the risks of war with China — what he calls "Thucydides Trap." Allison's research group at Harvard's Kennedy School has catalogued 16 instances in the last 500 years when a rising power, like China, has threatened an established power like the United States — 12 of which have led to war. The model for those wars was in ancient Greece, when a rising Athens threatened Sparta and led to the Peloponnesian war, described by Thucydides in what's widely considered the West's first work of history. The four instances that did not lead to war, including the rise of the Soviet Union after the Second World War and the Spanish-Portuguese rivalry that shaped the age of exploration, lay out clues that Washington should be considering now.

Link to podcast with Graham Allison

Richard McGregor restores Japan to our view of East Asia, in Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century (Viking/Penguin Random House). In dropping our earlier obsessions with a rising Japan — think back to the 1980s — we've lost sight of the huge geopolitical role it still plays. Everything from North Korea, to trade, to the status of Taiwan and navigation through the South China sea forces America to squeeze between what China wants and what Japan wants. It's been that way since the 1970s.

"Japan remains and enormously large and powerful country and it is in the fulcrum of East Asia so you can't think about he US and China without factoring Japan right into the centre of it," McGregor tells the Gelber podcast. Asia's Reckoning exposes issues that single-country experts miss, thanks to McGregor's decades covering foreign policy from Beijing, Tokyo and Washington for The Financial Times.

Link to podcast with Richard McGregor

Anne Appelbaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine (Signal/McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House) is the powerful exclamation mark on this year's list; a reminder that millions of people can die, quickly, in the blind spots ignored by the global discussion. In barely three years, from 1931 to 1933, 4.5 million people starved to death in Ukraine, the very breadbasket of Europe. Stalin designed the famine, and hardly anyone outside Ukraine noticed. Indeed, generations of Ukrainians could only whisper about the catastrophe; for decades thereafter, the Soviet Union jailed anyone who spoke openly about it.

"It was one of the great tragedies of human history and particularly significant in the Soviet context," Applebaum explains in the podcast, "both because of the scale of it and because of the comprehensiveness with which it was covered up."

Applebaum is a journalist and historian whose groundbreaking works on modern Eastern Europe have shaped the public conversation about Russia's power today. Applebaum knew that Ukrainian communities overseas had catalogued the oral history of Stalin's famine, the Holodomor, and that scholars has amassed a trove of data. Red Famine weaves both data and oral history together into a full picture of a catastrophe that killed almost as many people as the Holocaust, in the heart of Europe. This is her second time as a finalist for the Gelber Prize. In 2013, the jury shortlisted her Iron Curtain, a history of how the Soviet Union occupied eastern Europe after the Second World War.

Link to podcast with Anne Applebaum

Robert Steiner is Director of the Fellowship in Global Journalism, and Professor of Global Practice at The Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

He hosts the Gelber Prize podcast, available at iTunes and

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